Ketchikan Assembly Responds to Education Lawsuit Ruling

A Superior Court Judge has ruled in favor of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough in its lawsuit against the State of Alaska over the state’s education funding mandate. The Borough Assembly talked about Friday’s ruling during Monday night’s regular meeting, and Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst calls it a “big win” for Ketchikan.

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Superior Court Judge William Carey said boroughs are not required to help pay for public education. In his ruling, he said that the contribution is, essentially, a tax earmarked for a special purpose, which violates the state Constitution.

This is a big deal for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, which filed the lawsuit in January after years of talking about whether to take that step. The borough argued that the mandatory local contribution was unfair to organized boroughs and first-class cities, because it didn’t apply to smaller communities in unorganized boroughs.

sitka-assemblyKetchikan Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst has led the charge on this issue. Considering the efforts he’s put into it, his announcement of the court ruling was calm.

He simply noted that the judge ruled in the borough’s favor, but didn’t grant the borough’s request for a refund of this year’s local contribution for schools. Despite that small loss, “the major principal involved in that case, the borough was successful on that issue.”

Later, Assembly Member Glenn Thompson chided Bockhorst for his presentation.

“Mr. Bockhorst has to be the most subdued person I’ve ever met,” he said. “When he announces that this landmark decision of the Superior Court in favor of the borough — you’ve got to have some fist-bumps going on here. You should stand up, take a bow, do a jig, do something rather than just calmly report that ‘Yeah, we won.’”

Thompson noted that the added cost to the state that could result from this ruling is nothing compared to the projected drop in oil-tax revenue.

“Putting it in perspective, with the 30 percent drop in revenue at the state level, which I think equates to around $3 billion, the $300,000 problem we’ve handed them with the unconstitutionality of the required local contribution is merely a drop in the bucket,” he said. “It’ll just get lost in the trees. It shouldn’t be that big a problem for them.”

The state Department of Education’s budget for the 2013-2014 academic year was $1.4 billion, and $222 million of that came from required local contributions provided by boroughs and first-class cities.

How the state will respond to Judge Carey’s ruling is up in the air. Lawyers representing the state government are evaluating the decision and any options available.

What newly elected Gov. Bill Walker might do also is unknown. During an October campaign stop in Ketchikan, though, he told KRBD that he understood the borough’s frustration.

“And there’s some technical issues in that litigation that they’ve got some good points about, as far as dedication of revenue and those kinds of things,” he said.

Walker said the problem stems from the state pushing obligations onto local governments, and he would open lines of communication in hopes of resolving those disagreements.

In the meantime, Borough Manager Bockhorst said he will confer with the borough’s attorneys regarding what’s next, and will place an executive session on the Assembly’s next meeting agenda to talk about strategies.