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State settles historic lawsuit over village school funding

Kyle Hopkins

The state of Alaska has reached what rural school advocates are calling a historic agreement in a 14-year battle for equitable funding of school construction in remote villages.

The settlement, announced Tuesday, calls for the governor to ask the Legislature for $146 million or more over four years to build or renovate schools in five Western Alaska villages.

If the state lives up to its promises, the agreement will close the book on a 1997 lawsuit that prompted a state judge to declare Alaska funding of village schools "arbitrary, inadequate and racially discriminatory."

"It's dealing with the historic inequity where urban schools got automatic funding and rural schools were neglected year after year to the point that some of them were very unsafe and certainly not a very good place for somebody to learn," said Charles Wohlforth, executive director of Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children, a group formed in the 1990s to promote rural school funding.

The lawsuit, Willie and Sophie Kasayulie et al., v. State of Alaska, was named for a couple from the western Alaska village of Akiachak who filed the lawsuit along with a group of other rural parents and with the support of rural school districts. They claimed the state's method of financing school construction discriminated against rural students -- a majority of whom were Alaska Native.

In 1999 and again in 2001, then-Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Reese concluded that the system was indeed unfair.

Urban schools participated in a bond reimbursement program that provided 70 percent of their construction money through the state. But some rural school districts are scattered across cash-poor, unorganized regions with no local borough government. They had no tax base to approve bonds and were subject to the spending whims of the Legislature.

"Education, health and safety of our youth have suffered. The dignity of our fellow citizens has suffered," Reese wrote in 2001. "The respect for public officials has suffered. The racial divisions in our state are further aggravated."

But the case wasn't closed, in part because the Legislature never created a new, equitable way to pay for new school construction in villages. That changed in 2010, when lawmakers approved a formula that tethers the amount of rural school funding to state funding on urban school construction.

The new formula is expected to provide about $38 million annually -- about enough to build one new school a year, Wohlforth said.

Meantime, the settlement also calls for the state to request money to pay for five rural projects that sit at the top of a school construction priority list. Over the next four years, the governor has agreed to ask for funding for additions, renovations or replacement schools in Emmonak, Koliganek, Nightmute, Kwethluk and Kivalina.

For all the projects, there is a catch. Legislators still have to approve the money for the governor's requests. With a statewide redistricting effort in the works, the players will change in Juneau in coming years.

"The political process, anybody, at any time could say, 'We're changing our mind. We're going to take that out, we're going to change that formula,'" said Education Commissioner Mike Hanley.

But lawmakers paved the way for the settlement by approving the new spending plan for rural schools and will likely support the agreement, he said. "They began the process and I think they're going to see it through."

Hanley signed the agreement along with Alaska Attorney General John Burns.

If the school funding plan described in the settlement falls apart, the plaintiffs have the option of reopening the lawsuit, according to the agreement. The settlement allows the legislature to refuse funding for the Kivalina school based on concerns over erosion or viability of the school site without penalty.

Reached by phone in Akiachak, his hometown of about 630 people on the lower Kuskokwim River, Willie Kasayulie called the settlement "a long time coming."

A member of the Alaska Federation of Natives board of directors, Kasayulie is a father of five. His oldest child was 15 when he filed the lawsuit more than a decade ago, he said.

Village schools were overcrowded, he said, but lawmakers routinely denied requests for new classrooms in the Bush.

"It was mostly due to politics and many of the legislators not understanding or really knowing what the conditions were like in smaller communities such as ours," Kasayulie said.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

PDF: Read the settlement
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News