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Fair or not, education bill contains extra help for urban districts

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- Legislators have heard about school funding concerns and likely budget cuts from Anchorage and other large school districts and have added new provisions to Gov. Sean Parnell's omnibus education bill to help the largest of those districts.

That extra help for the big districts amounts to about $13.5 million, and it is only fair, say the legislators who crafted the bill. The big cities were where the complaints they heard were coming from, they said.

"That's where we've heard most of the debate, that's where the rallies have been, that's where the focus has been," said Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Republican who represents Chugiak, in the Anchorage School District.

But Alaska's school funding formula recognizes that bigger schools have economies of scale, and to ensure funding fairness either provides those schools with less money or smaller schools with more money.

House Bill 278, the governor's omnibus education bill, was changed in the House Finance Committee to add a new provision that gives larger shares to larger schools.

Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, a key member of the powerful committee that adopted the plan favoring larger schools, defended it at a press conference Thursday.

"The adjustment affects 80 percent of the students in Alaska" and counts each child closer to one student, rather than a fraction of one, she said.

Stoltze said that's good, because the public in those large districts has a "visceral" reaction to having their students counted as less than a full student.

But there's a reason for that, said some critics, including legislative Democrats, rural school leaders, and even some Anchorage school supporters.

"That is a calculation that puts more money into the Anchorage schools -- Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks," said Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, but if those districts have seen their costs go up, it's almost certain that rural districts have higher costs as well.

Solving problems for just a few districts isn't Democrats' goal, he said, and Anchorage residents haven't asked for special treatment either.

"Anchorage is almost held harmless," said Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau. A small amount of the new money for large schools goes to just a handful of schools, he said.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, who caucuses with the Republican-led House majority, said during committee debate Wednesday evening that he nearly introduced an amendment to repeal the change, and may do so during floor debate Friday.

An email from Kenai Peninsula Borough School Superintendent Steve Atwater made the rounds in education circles this week warning that House Bill 278 risks destabilizing a carefully crafted system that began in 1988. House Bill 279 now increases state funding for schools with attendance above 250 and 500.

Those brackets might need to be changed, but that's not how to do it, his email said.

"It is fair to question the multipliers from 1998, but not fair to simply change two of these on the fly," he said.

Charles Wohlforth of Anchorage went further, accusing politically powerful legislators from large districts, including in his own city, of trying to protect their districts at the expense of others.

"The state established an equal system for funding all schools, then legislators used typical legislative power politics to instead fund only urban schools," he said.

Wohlforth is executive director of Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children. In recent years the group has settled what became known as the Moore settlement and the Kasayulie lawsuit over rural school funding.

The new House Bill 278 provision favoring large schools risks unbalancing that state school funding formula, he said.

"We don't have any plans to file additional lawsuits, and we don't want to file, but it was a similar situation that gave rise to the Kasayulie lawsuit," he said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com.