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Education nonprofit sues governor for not paying $20 million to Alaska public schools

An education funding fight has boiled over into Alaska’s court system.

An Alaska education group on Wednesday sued the governor and the state education commissioner for not paying the $20 million to public K-12 schools that lawmakers agreed to last year. The lawsuit was filed in Anchorage Superior Court.

The group, Coalition for Education Equity, argues in the lawsuit that the executive branch has violated the Alaska Constitution by withholding the one-time payout of $20 million that the Alaska Legislature appropriated to public schools last year, months before Republican Mike Dunleavy was elected governor.

The $20 million is on top of the $1.2 billion in state money allocated to the schools under the state funding formula for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2019.

Gov. Dunleavy proposed a supplemental budget bill in January that included canceling the $20 million payout in the middle of the school year. The funds had not yet been distributed to schools, but district officials said they had budgeted for the money. For the Anchorage School District, it means the potential loss of nearly $5.8 million.

If the Legislature chooses not to act on the proposed legislation, the $20 million will be distributed according to law, said a statement from Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Dunleavy. Shuckerow said the governor’s office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The governor has until June 30 to distribute the money, said David Teal, director of the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division. That’s later than the money traditionally goes out. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development usually distributes one-time funding in late January or early February, according to department spokeswoman Erin Hardin.

The Coalition for Education Equity is asking the court to order Dunleavy and Education Commissioner Michael Johnson to release the $20 million to schools immediately. It also wants the court to declare that the executive branch has violated the Alaska Constitution by “impounding” money that the Legislature appropriated last year, the lawsuit says.

That $20 million stems from a budget compromise struck in May 2018. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 142, which included a one-time, $20 million increase to school funding for the current fiscal year. Then-Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, signed the bill into law.

The lawsuit argues that the governor has a constitutional obligation to execute state laws.

“I don’t know what to think of a governor who inherits a budget that was properly passed and refuses to write the checks,” said Rep. Harriet Drummond, an Anchorage Democrat who co-chairs the House Education Committee.

Drummond said it doesn’t appear there’s an appetite among members of the House to reverse last year’s funding decision.

The Alaska Senate on Friday voted 16-4 in favor of an amendment from Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, that asks the state to immediately pay the $20 million to school districts. The amendment wouldn’t go into effect until Dunleavy signs the budget.

Donna Arduin, director of the state Office of Management and Budget, said earlier this year that the Dunleavy administration wants to follow the state’s school funding formula, and the $20 million is above what the formula requires.

Sarah Sledge, executive director of the Coalition for Education Equity, said the nonprofit wants to stand up for school districts that are relying on the appropriated money, and she believes it has a strong case. Sledge’s husband is Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage.

“We believe that the governor is overstepping his bounds,” Sledge said. “He is constitutionally obligated to execute the law of the state of Alaska and this was passed and signed law. The Legislature has not opted to act on repealing those dollars, so he needs to give the money to the schools.”

The Coalition for Education Equity, based in Anchorage, is a statewide, member-based nonprofit formerly known as the Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children.

It was behind the 1997 Kasayulie lawsuit that prompted a state judge to declare Alaska funding of school construction projects as inadequate and racially discriminatory. It was also one of the plaintiffs in the 2004 Moore lawsuit, in which a judge said the state failed to adequately supervise local school districts and, as a result, some students weren’t getting the education they were legally entitled to.

Daily News reporter James Brooks in Juneau contributed to this report.

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