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School money lawsuit starts today

Borough keeping eye on trial that could impact funding formula

Posted: Monday, October 02, 2006

The civil trial for a lawsuit alleging the state’s education funding system has been inadequate and inequitable is set to begin Monday in Anchorage Superior Court.

The suit, Moore v. State of Alaska, claims that low and unfair funding levels have denied Alaska students access to an adequate education. As a result, schools have seen high teacher turnover, been forced to curtail certain courses of study and, at some locations, been unable to cover the cost of much-needed positions, libraries, textbooks and supplies.

The Moore plaintiffs consist of parents, school districts, the National Education Association-Alaska Inc., and others who are seeking a declaration by the court that current funding levels and the system employed to determine that funding are failing to provide Alaska’s children with the adequate education required by the Alaska Constitution.

In that declaration, plaintiffs want the court to define the parameters of a constitutionally adequate education and a court order that the state fund education accordingly. The civil action was filed in 2004.

State funding to school districts is determined through a complex calculation called the Foundation Formula that includes an Area Cost Differential factor that compares rural districts with Anchorage.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough and the peninsula school district are not parties to the Moore suit. However, officials here have argued for years that the 1.004 cost-differential factor applied to the peninsula district (Anchorage is set at 1.00) is too low. Studies have shown it should have been around 1.171.

The lower figure has cost the district at least $70 million over the past five years, according to the borough.

Years of promises by state lawmakers to address the inequities in education funding have yet to result in a long-term legislative fix. In the past couple of years, the Legislature has approved short-term appropriations boosting funding to schools on an annual basis.

Earlier this year, the borough assembly authorized Mayor John Williams to investigate the ins and outs of the borough filing its own education lawsuit. So far, no suit has been filed.

In August, Williams proposed an ordinance to appropriate up to $400,000 to the Moore lawsuit legal fund, a move he said would, presuming a win by the plaintiffs, allow the borough to participate in likely settlement negotiations with the state. That idea died when the assembly rejected the ordinance at introduction.

Assembly members argued that suit’s inadequacy claim — with which it actually agrees — nevertheless made Moore v. State of Alaska “the wrong vehicle” for the borough, which is more concerned with inequity arguments about the Foundation Formula as it is applied to the borough school district.

The assembly, the administration and the school district remain, however, keenly interested in the outcome of the Moore v. State of Alaska trial. A victory by plaintiffs would benefit all districts.

Tim Navarre, Williams’ chief of staff, said Thursday that outside counsel was working with the borough taking into consideration various legal options for an equity lawsuit.

“If everything stays on track, we hope to present options to the assembly by November, but no later than in December,” Navarre said.

That would leave the assembly prepared to choose the civil lawsuit avenue in May if the Legislature failed to fix the equity problem in the coming session, he said.

Virginia McKinney, NEA-Alaska’s communications director, said Thursday she was glad to hear the borough was continuing to consider its own lawsuit. She said Moore plaintiffs understood the reasoning behind the assembly’s decision not to provide funding for their case, saying that when that funding was proposed, legal developments in Moore were already very far along, while the borough’s investigation into its own options were not yet far enough advanced.

The trial is scheduled to last 22 days, with time split evenly between plaintiff and defense arguments. McKinney said. The case will be heard by Judge Sharon Gleason at the Nesbett Court House in Anchorage.

Hal Spence can be reached at harold.spence@peninsulaclarion.com.



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