Compass: Restore public schools land trust to provide steady funds

A proposal has been made to provide a new, large and stable revenue source for elementary and secondary education in Alaska. The revenue would come, not from the state's general fund, but from a reconstituted public school land trust containing as much as 23 million acres.

The proposal has been put forward by the Citizens Alliance Protecting School Land in litigation filed April 2013 in Superior Court in Juneau. The state has opposed all features of the plan.

A bit of background will help put this issue in perspective.

In 1915 Congress reserved for the Territory of Alaska sections 16 and 36 of all surveyed townships for the support of public elementary and secondary education. Receipts from these sections were put into a permanent fund for education. Investment returns from the permanent fund were then disbursed to the schools.

Following statehood Alaska patented to state ownership some 101,000 acres of school trust land reserved during the territorial period. Then, through a quirk in the Statehood Act, Alaska discontinued adding school sections 16 and 36 of townships formed after statehood.

In 1978 the legislature "redesignated" the school trust land and merged it with Alaska's general grant lands. There was no legal challenge then to an obvious breach of the state's obligation as trustee to maintain the school trust land identity and purpose. With no school land to generate revenue for the school permanent fund the legislature directed that the fund receive one-half of one percent of receipts from the state's general grant lands.

Kasayulie v. State of Alaska, filed in Anchorage Superior Court in 1997 on rural school facility issues, later charged that the state had failed to properly manage the school trust lands and school trust fund. On September 1, 1999 Judge John Reese ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on both school facility and school trust issues. He said, in part, "The Court holds that the State has breached its duties as a trustee of the public school lands." He ordered an appraisal of the original school trust land and a review of all management procedures. These did not occur. More recently, a court ordered settlement specified procedures for full resolution of school land trust issues.

The Citizens Alliance Protecting School Land plan would provide Alaska with a fully reconstituted public school land trust and public school permanent fund. It calls for compliance with the original Federal statutes enacted in 1915. It would recover school sections 16 and 36 where possible, obtain new land equivalent to other sections 16 and 36, or payment in lieu of land taken. This land would become the corpus of the reconstituted school land trust and the source of income for the school permanent fund. An organization similar to the Mental Health Trust Authority would be created to manage the school trust.

Here is the math on the 23 million acres cited at the beginning of this article. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has mapped approximately 18,000 townships in Alaska. Each township has 36 sections with each section containing 640 acres. 18,000 townships x 2 sections (16 and 36) equal 36,000. 36,000 sections x 640 acres per section totals 23,040,000 acres.

The proposed school land trust will provide a new and reliable source of income for the schools. This is revenue for schools that doesn't come from the State's general fund.

It would seem that the State would consider this a grand idea, subject to serious study and implementation. The school children of Alaska deserve it. But no, the State opposes this plan. Why?

E. Dean Coon,, is a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks faculty member. He has been monitoring Alaska's school trust land and school trust fund since 1984 and has written three research papers about the trust.