Williams to ask assembly’s support for state lawsuit over funding

Mayor ready for school suit

Posted: Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Borough Mayor John Williams said this week he is prepared to move forward with a lawsuit against the state seeking damages for the state’s inadequate and inequitable funding of schools within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

All he needs now is the nod of approval from the assembly, and a group of plaintiffs that have standing with the court, likely parents of school-age children. The Alaska Constitution bars the school district and borough from filing the suit themselves.

At its Dec. 5 meeting, the assembly will consider a resolution that would authorize the mayor to enter an agreement with borough residents and file and pursue a lawsuit on their behalf.

Back on May 16, the assembly gave Williams the authority to investigate and formulate a plan for pursuing legal avenues toward more funding for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and asked to be presented with a plan of action.

In the resolution, Williams said he would be asking for the necessary funding to support a lawsuit, and said he was prepared to hire a long-time Alaska law firm — Roberston, Monagle and Eastaugh — to represent the plaintiffs.

“There are a couple of wrinkles,” Williams said Monday.

First, because the Alaska Supreme Court has held that school districts are not “persons” within the meaning of the Alaska Constitution, the district and borough lack standing before the court. Thus, the borough itself cannot sue, and will seek out residents willing to become plaintiffs in a suit against the state.

“We will hunt around and find residents who feel the same as we do that their children have been damaged (by a serious lack of state funding),” Williams said. “We would work up a procedure in which we will prepare a complaint and represent the interests of the borough through them.”

Second, he said, because residents conceivably could be on the hook for court costs in the event a court rules they are not public litigants — an unlikely event — he would prepare the suit so as to hold them harmless. That is, the borough would assume any court costs.

Williams said he does not believe finding parents ready to serve as plaintiffs will be hard.

“Our feeling is that if we take a look at this generation of parents, especially those who went to borough schools themselves, they can compare what they had then versus what their children are receiving now, and make a determination whether it is adequate or not,” Williams said.

The plan proposed by the law firm, Williams said, includes funding a lawsuit seeking equitable funding for the district, while simultaneously attempting to negotiate with the state. In May, the administration said it had identified $100,000 already in the budget that could be made available to spend on litigation.

“If additional funding is required, then the administration will seek a supplemental appropriation from the assembly,” Williams said in a Nov. 20 memo to the assembly. Discussing further details with the assembly may require an executive session Dec. 5, he said.

The borough estimates that the state’s mechanism for funding public schools — called the Foundation Formula, which includes the area cost differential factor — has underfunded local schools by more than $100 million in the past 10 years.

A similar lawsuit — Moore vs. state of Alaska — went to trial Oct. 2 in Anchorage Superior Court and is nearing an end. The borough is not a party to that suit, but it seeks similar redress. In August, Williams sought but failed to win assembly approval of an ordinance that would have provided up to $400,000 in financial backing for the Moore plaintiffs. The assembly opted to consider an independent borough suit instead.

Back in May, assembly member Margaret Gilman noted that the borough shouldn’t look just to test scores and grades to determine damages, but also in terms of opportunities lost.

“I can speak personally that I graduated from Kenai (High School) in 1982,” she said then. “When my daughter started there last year in 2005, she had exactly one half the course offerings available to her as I did when I left there in 1982.”

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

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