Dept of Ed decision puts school projects on hold, bumps taxes

The state’s Department of Education won’t reimburse two school districts for voter-backed school bonds. It’s an uncommon move, with districts usually relying on the state to back a majority of the costs for bonds covering capital projects.

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Anchorage voters approved a nearly $59.3 million bond in April that will pay for building upgrades at eight schools. But since an August letter from the Education Department informed the school district they won’t be reimbursed, the full cost will be spread across residents’ property taxes.

“Tax payers will see a small bump because of their approval of the bond proposal,” said Myer Hutchinson, spokesman for the Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

That measure was approved within the same short span of time that Legislators passed a five year moratorium on school bonding. At the time, many were unsure what it could mean for the Anchorage School District’s proposal. But with news coming in August that the governor’s administration won’t agree to the reimbursements, the Municipality of Anchorage is working with the school district to discuss the issue with its state counterparts.

“We’re really hoping that the Legislature and the Governor can extend the same kind of certainty that we afford the oil industry in Alaska to our school children,” Hutchinson said.

But projects across the district will go ahead as planned. That’s not the case for the state’s only other bonding district: In Bristol Bay, where the lack of reimbursement will stop plans to bring the school in Naknek up to code.

Bristol Bay Borough voters approved a proposal for a $14 million dollar bond to pay to bring the school up to code and make it more energy efficient.

Those plans are now on hold.

“That retroactive moratorium really put the kibash on the project,”District Superintendent Bill Hill said, adding that it was frustrating to learn of the Education Department’s decision after the district had put time and resources into planning the school improvements.

“It’s not an easy process to go through,” Hill said. “We hired a firm to do design and development, the borough spent money getting us to a 35 percent design on the project. We expended a lot of personnel time. We involved our community in the development of the project. So there was a lot of effort in this.”

The district’s single school in Naknek has many systems overdue for repair or replacement–the windows, doors, lights, fans, heating, and roofing all need work, according to Hill.

In a Borough with a year-round tax base of less than a thousand residents, the school district will have to keep looking outside for funding to make those improvements.

“We are applying to the state’s capital improvement projects list. The chances are probably slim as well, but that’s our first stab,” Hill said. “After that, we’re not 100% sure where we’ll go.”

The Borough might be able to fund some smaller portions of the project on a piece-by-piece basis.