Funding Cut To Kivalina School Could Pose Legal Problem For Legislature

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance committee slashed more than $40 million in state dollars from the capital budget. A rural school project the state is legally obligated to complete was among the reductions.

Seven million dollars had been set aside for the construction of a school in Kivalina, and a road to it. The state committed to building the school in 2011, as part of a long-fought education lawsuit known as the Kasayulie case. The plaintiffs argued there was a disparity in how the Legislature treated rural schools, and that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to educate students in villages.

Sen. Donny Olson represents Kivalina and serves on the finance committee. He opposes the cuts, and worries the state may expose itself to more litigation if it backs out of funding the school.

“If the state’s in a position where it’s got to continue to defend itself on a consent decree that’s already been accepted by both plaintiffs and defendants, we’ve got to reopen it,” says Olson. “Then we’re spending a lot more money, and we’re already in a financially strapped time.”

One of the complicating factors in the project is the school’s location. Kivalina is a poster child for climate change — it is on a barrier island on Kotzebue Sound, and it is experiencing steady erosion. Because the community may face relocation, the school mandated by the Kasayulie case will be built outside of the village and requires a new road.

Olson says the Senate Finance committee is now trying to restore some of the funding for the project, but there has been resistance to paying for the road. For him, the road is needed for the state to meet its obligations in the Kasayulie case.

“You can’t have a school without a road to build the school,” says Olson.

The cuts caught Kivalina by surprise. Millie Hawley is president of Kivalina’s tribal government, and she had not heard of the cuts until reached by phone for this story. The Kivalina school funding was one of the few new capital projects included in Gov. Bill Walker’s budget because of the state’s legal duty to pay for it.

“It would be very detrimental to the students and the school here in Kivalina,” says Hawley.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican who is in charge of the capital budget, was not available for an interview.

In February, a delegation of nine legislators visited Kivalina as part of a trip to confront United States Interior Secretary Sally Jewell over drilling prohibitions in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.Lawmakers toured the existing school and village elders pleaded with state and federal officials to aid the erosion-stricken village.