School board challenges state issues

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

The Association of Alaska School Boards works with legislators to shape state education policy. Every year it lines up resolutions from boards to take to Juneau.

Monday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education reviewed the list from the AASB board of directors and found several key points of disagreement.

Two AASB resolutions opposing mandatory school district consolidation and mandatory borough formation prompted lively discussion and split votes.

The issues have pitted urban legislators against small, rural school districts. The legislators are pressing schools to cut overhead by pooling administration costs and rural residents to pay more of the tab for education in their communities. The rural school boards are striving to maintain local control and avoid taxation in impoverished parts of the state.

Dr. Nels Anderson, a member of the school board, said he discussed the issues with Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, who has worked extensively on education funding issues in the Legislature and is an advocate of mandatory district consolidation and mandatory borough formation as ways to help the state distribute education dollars more equitably.

"I feel these are two (resolutions) we can legitimately oppose," Anderson said.

The first resolution states, "AASB is opposed to mandated school consolidation because it will significantly reduce local control for a majority of school districts in Alaska."

The state has 54 school districts. Of those, 29 had fewer than 500 students each during the last school year. The smallest, Pelican, had 23 students. The Kenai Peninsula district is the state's fourth largest, ranked behind Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The AASB report said studies show only marginal savings possible with consolidation and that better ways are possible and already under way to achieve the financial goals. Revisions to state law in the late 1990s limiting the amounts districts can spend on expenses other than instruction have reduced the emphasis on the consolidation effort.

The school board voted against the AASB position 4-to-2, with Anderson, Sammy Crawford, Joe Arness and Al Poindexter nixing the resolution. Member Debra Mullins was absent.

Sandra Wassilie and Deborah Germano disagreed with their colleagues and sided with the AASB.

Wassilie said she sees a need for some consolidation, but favors the resolution because it supports local initiatives.

Germano said she feels good work already is occurring, such as districts sharing specialists to cut costs.

"They are finding better ways to do things," she said.

The school board also voted against the second resolution, opposing mandatory formation of boroughs.

"A mandatory borough act reverses a decades-long trend toward increased local responsibility and control by encouraging the elimination of small REAA (rural education attendance area) districts and small city districts, and would also reduce the level of local control of education as it exists today," the AASB wrote.

The board voted 5-to-1 against the opposition, with Germano switching sides and Wassilie as the lone member to side with the AASB position.

Anderson said part of his vote to support the mandatory borough movement was influenced by comments Patrick Hickey, the district's assistant superintendent for finances, made during an earlier work session.

Speaking after the meeting, Hickey said he had remarked that unincorporated rural areas have legitimate tax opportunities as well as legitimate tax exclusions and that he objected to people moving to rural areas to avoid paying for services received.

"Legitimate taxpayers ought to pay legitimate taxes," he said.

The school board also asked the administration to draft wording for two new resolutions, with the intent to ask the AASB to add them to its priority list.

One asked for clarification of regulations regarding the religious exemption from vaccinations. The board took up the issue after a statement from Karen Mahurin, the secretary at Sears Elementary School in Kenai and head of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, the union representing support staff.

Mahurin said she and her colleagues are alarmed about record numbers of parents claiming religious exemptions to avoid giving their children required immunizations. The old rules required documentation from a minister or other authority backing the claim, but now parents can just sign their names without question.

"I feel the law needs to be clear protecting school districts as well as people's religious freedom," she said.

The other proposed new resolution asks the state to enforce truancy laws now on the books.

Anderson said current laws are not being enforced. Even parents are losing the power to keep children in school. He has heard reports of students as young as third grade refusing to attend.

"There should be some hammer," he said.

Board members voted unanimously to pursue adding both issues to the AASB priority list. The administration will submit the texts of the proposed resolutions at the next meeting, which will be 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Borough Building in Soldotna.

The AASB is soliciting the input for consideration at the annual AASB business meeting in Anchorage in November. There were 68 resolutions on its proposed list, and the school board unanimously voted to support the other 66.



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