Alaska News Nightly: January 26, 2012

Individual news stories are posted in the Alaska News category and you can subscribe to APRN’s news feeds via email, podcast and RSS.

Download Audio

Rural Alaska Parents Settle In School Funding Case

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Parents of students in rural Alaska schools have settled their litigation with the state over the level of state support required by the state constitution.

The “Moore versus State” case, filed in 2004, challenged the state’s use of funding and standards in dealing with the lowest-achieving schools. The state lost the original case as Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that the state had failed in meeting its responsibilities to those schools.

Thursday’s settlement sets up a method for the Department of Education and local school districts to work together to focus resources on the state’s forty lowest-performing schools. Education Commissioner Mike Hanley said negotiations in recent months have been based on the idea that neither the state nor the plaintiffs should be seen as winners or losers.

“The Moore settlement stated that it will need an $18-million one-time appropriation.   The design has been that it will provide funding for several years and would provide a foundation that we could look to and a model that we could look to in the future for a successful program for successful pedagogical strategies that would make a difference for our kids,” Hanley said.

The group Citizens for Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children took the lead on the case by coordinating the schools, the plaintiffs and the attorneys who carried it.   Executive Director Charles Wohlforth, who signed the settlement documents in the Attorney General’s office Thursday afternoon,  said they continued to push the state for a what they thought would work to erase what he called a “waste of human potential” when children are not given a chance.

“So, have we solved all the problems with rural education in some of our schools in Alaska.  Well, I think the answer would be No.   $18-million is clearly not going to be enough to solve this broad span of problems.   But I think what we’re going to do – and the commissioner alluded to it – we’re going to demonstrate some programs, we’re going to work on them collaboratively, and we’re going to see that they work.  We’re going to prove that this is the right way to go – and there’s new hope for kids in rural schools across Alaska,” Wohlforth said.

The settlement specifically sets up a committee appointed by CEAAC and the Department to determine how resources should be shared to meet the outlines in the court’s decision.

DNR Proposes Changes to Mission, Legislature to Review

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

Although it’s not official yet, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources has announced its intention to change its mission statement. Recently, administrators quietly removed the words ‘conserve’ and ‘enhance ‘from the statement, leaving only the word ‘develop’ to describe how resources should be managed. They also removed a reference to ‘future Alaskans’. Legislators will soon begin weighing in on the issue.

DNR Commissioner, Dan Sullivan says there’s one reason he decided to change the agency’s mission statement — because, he wants the mission to be more closely aligned with the state’s constitution.

“Particularly the policy statement in Article 8, section 1,” Sullivan said.

That’s the part that reads:

“… to encourage the settlement of its land and the development of its resources by making them available for *maximum use consistent with the public interest,” Sullivan said.

The old mission statement read that DNR’s mission was, “To develop, conserve and enhance natural resources for present and future Alaskans.” The words conserve and enhance have been dropped, along with the reference to “future Alaskans.” Sullivan, served as Attorney General for a year before he was appointed Commissioner of DNR by Governor Sean Parnell in 2010. His staff says this is not the first time DNR’s mission statement has changed. They say there were three revisions in the past decade alone. Sullivan issued the change on Jan. 17.

News of the revision has conservation groups concerned, says Trish Rolfe with Trustees for Alaska.

“It concerns me not just from my organizational standpoint, but from a longtime Alaskan. It is in our constitution that we utilize develop and conserve all the natural resources belonging to the state. You know you don’t just get to use the first two of it,” Rolfe said.

Changing the wording of the mission also worries Bob Shavelson with Cook Inletkeeper. He says he noticed the change to the mission a few weeks ago.

“My staff brought it to my attention a couple of weeks ago … from a power point presentation that commissioner Sullivan had given, and he just thought it was peculiar that they were stating the mission as something that was different from the written mission on the DNR website. And then just this past week we saw that they had gone and unilaterally gone and changed their mission,” Shavelson said.

That change in wording, Shavelson says, gives the mission a pro-development slant. And it’s something he says that should also concern the legislature.

“One of the concerns that the legislature may have is that you have an executive agency that may or may not have some political motivations in making that change, so it should fall in the prerogative of the legislature to do that because under the notion of separation of powers that falls within the duty of the legislature,” Shavelson said.

And some legislators are concerned. Sullivan presented the new mission to them on Jan. 20 at a meeting of the House Resources Committee in Juneau. During that meeting, Representative Paul Seaton of Homer questioned the change. He says it deserves a thorough review.

“I want to make sure that we are developing in a responsible way – we also don’t exclude conserving or enhancing our natural resources or future Alaskans. That’s something that is left out of the proposed mission statement by DNR,” Seaton said.

Seaton says he expects Commissioner Sullivan to provide more information about the proposed changes to the mission, the reasoning behind it and possible impacts. He also claims statutes give the legislature, not DNR the responsibility to issue a mission statement for state agencies.

“The legislature sets the mission statements. It hasn’t adopted this mission statement. The old mission statement will still be operative until the legislature changes the mission statement,” Seaton said.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is responsible for managing the state’s vast energy and natural resources and overseeing regulatory activities on approximately 100-million acres of uplands, 60-million acres of tidelands, shorelands and submerged lands, and 40,000 miles of coastline. Seaton says legislators hope to begin addressing the proposed changes to DNR’s mission statement in the coming weeks.

State Sen. Stevens Says Oil Tax Agreement Most Important This Session

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

State Senate President Gary Stevens says nothing is more important this legislative session than coming to agreement on oil tax legislation.

The Senate’s bi-partisan coalition is writing its own bill to counter Governor Sean Parnell’s proposal to reduce Alaska’s oil profits by giving producers major tax breaks.  Stevens says the Senate Resources version will be drafted in about a week and a half.

Fairbanks Democrat Joe Paskvan – co-chair of the Senate Resources Committee – says Alaska will still behave as an “owner state.”

“You know, we are different than most other jurisdictions in the United States and we need to act like a sophisticated owner with a world class resource,” Paskvan said.

While details are scarce, Senators say the bill will include a progressive surcharge and tax credits.

They told reporters Thursday that they’ve been discussing their approach with the governor, and the two sides may be closer than expected.

Senator Hollis French says the promise of more oil industry jobs for Alaskans will help bridge the gap between the two sides.

A report commissioned by the Senate indicates the administration was wrong last year when it claimed oil industry jobs were being shipped out of Alaska to other oil-rich states.

According to the McDowell Group report, average annual employment on Alaska’s North Slope was at a 20-year high in 2010.

Rep. Gara Pushes Against Texting While Driving

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

Thirty-five states have banned texting while driving – and Alaska thought it had too.

But some judges say the law passed in 2008 is not clear, so legislation is on the move that specifically prohibits drivers from reading or typing a text, email or other message while their vehicle is in motion.

A Fairbanks training judge has advised magistrates to refuse cases involving texting while driving, and a Kenai judge has thrown out a case against a driver for texting.

That case is on appeal.  Anchorage Democrat Les Gara told the House Transportation Committee today that lawmakers should not wait for a court ruling:

“I think you only really need one fact, and that is according to the National Conference on State Legislators, drivers who text while they drive are 20 times more likely to have an accident than people who don’t text,” Gara said.

Gara says the issue of texting while driving has been taken up by the national organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“It’s the new drunk driving,” Gara said.

After a brief hearing, House Bill 255 moved out of the transportation committee,  bound for judiciary.

The legislation states that texting is illegal while the vehicle is in motion.  Gara said reading or sending a text while sitting in a parked vehicle should not be a crime.

Crews Clean Up After Savoonga Fuel Spill

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

Crews in the St. Lawrence Island community of Savoonga are digging to reach contaminated snow after a fuel tank overflowed last Thursday and spilled thousands of gallons of diesel into a containment area.   No fuel has breached the containment area.

The operator for the Native Village of Savoonga tank farm reports that a new employee opened the wrong valve during a gasoline purchase and pumped diesel fuel into a full tank, resulting in the overflow.

Wesley Ghormley is an Environmental Program Specialist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation and is monitoring the response for the state.

Ghormley says workers have collected 6,000 gallons so far.

They’ve removed around 100 cubic yards of uncontaminated snow, but have yet to get into the contaminated snow. Ghormley says he expects a significant amount of fuel-soaked snow, which will be stored in 270 gallon totes.

The recovered diesel will be able to be used after a filtering process. Ghormley expects another week of work to remove snow. He says the fumes are strong and crews are wearing full protective gear and using respirators.

DEC plans to send a representative out during spring thaw to complete a site assessment.

Enough Running Water Returns To Bethel Schools For Restroom Use

Mark Arehart, KYUK – Bethel

For almost a week students at a Bethel elementary school have had to brave the cold and walk outside to a separate building just to use the restroom.

That changed this week when the School finally got enough running water to flush the toilets.

Tribal, Federal Representatives Attempt To Solve Sewage System Problems

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Residents in a few dozen rural villages in Alaska are still using honey buckets. And with declining federal funds that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. But a group of state, tribal and federal representatives met at a workshop in Anchorage today to try to find innovative solutions to the problem.

IPHC Meeting Underway, Scientists Detail Concerns Over Stock Assessments

Matt Lichtenstein, KFSK – Petersburg

Halibut management scientists this week reprised concerns that they’ve been overestimating halibut stocks for several years and repeated their recommendation for a 19 percent overall cut to the coast wide catch for this year. As a region though, Southeast would see a small increase after six years of dropping quotas. The International Pacific Halibut Commission’s meeting is underway this week in Anchorage.

Anchorage Folk Festival Taking Place

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Anchorage’s Folk Festival is in its 23rd year.  The annual event banishes wintertime blahs with hot bluegrass music, folk tunes and fiddle dances.