Group says Alaska isn’t meeting commitment to fund rural schools

A map showing the boundaries between every school district in Alaska. Advocates for education funding equity said the state isn’t following an agreement to fund rural schools. (Map courtesy Alaska Department of Education and Early Development)

Because of a more than 20-year-old lawsuit, the state is obligated to fund rural school construction. A group focused on education funding says Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of half of the funding used to build and maintain schools violates that commitment.

In 1997, the parents of rural schoolchildren and others sued the state government. The lawsuit became known by the names of the first plaintiffs, Willie and Sophie Kasayulie. The plaintiffs said schools in rural areas that are not part of organized boroughs didn’t receive adequate state funding. A judge agreed.

And that led to a consent decree agreed to by all of the parties. Under this agreement, the state pays for schools in those rural areas known as Regional Educational Attendance Areas, or REAAs.

The Coalition for Education Equity of Alaska filed the Kasayulie lawsuit. Sarah Sledge, the coalition’s executive director, has tracked what the state has done since the consent decree.

“We fought that lawsuit, and see it as one of our priorities of our work, to ensure that the letter of that consent decree, of that decision, is followed,” said Sledge, who is married to Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat.

In June, Dunleavy vetoed half of the money the Legislature budgeted for rural schools. The coalition asked the governor to reverse the veto last July.

“And now we are talking with legislators, trying to see if there is a way to get those funds added back in,” Sledge said.

The settlement depends on a law that said the state will fund rural school construction based on the amount of bonds that cities and boroughs have sold to build schools.

Dunleavy’s vetoes cut in half the amount the state pays for both reimbursing municipalities for their school bond debt, and for building rural schools.

Coalition lawyer Howard Trickey told lawmakers in February that it may sound like the cut treated both those inside and outside boroughs equally.

But Trickey said there’s a big difference. Borough and city school districts can offset school costs with local taxes; rural schools can’t.

Trickey said the state has a long history of failing to fund rural schools.

“In my opinion, the continuation of reducing substantially that funding will put the state in violation of those constitutional obligations again,” Trickey said.

At least some lawmakers are sympathetic to Sledge’s group’s argument.

Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky chairs the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs. The committee held a recent meeting on equity between rural and urban schools.

“We hope that this serves as a good foundation by which us as a committee, and in our relationship with colleagues, (can) have conversations about equity (that) can be made more approachable and more available and less polarizing,” Zulkosky said.

The House didn’t add the school construction money into a supplemental budget bill this session. The bill would fund items that weren’t budgeted for in the budget bill Dunleavy signed last year. The coalition is hoping that the Senate will add the money.

If not, it will be up to the coalition to decide whether to take the state to court again.

Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson’s office noted that the amounts the state funds for both rural schools and municipal school bond debt have been cut in recent years. And it said these cuts are consistent with the Kasayulie settlement.

Assistant Attorney General Maria Bahr said Clarkson will continue to watch how this issue is addressed by the Legislature, adding that the final results of this year’s budget process are still to be determined.

The Senate Finance Committee is considering the budget measure, House Bill 234, that the coalition would like to see the school funding added to.