In a split vote Monday, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly decided to sue the State of Alaska over school funding.
Led by Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst, the borough has for about five years challenged what it calls state underfunding of basic needs for schools. The state requires that borough governments fund local schools, but that requirement isn’t uniform throughout the state.
The required local contribution is the percentage of a school district’s budget that an organized borough in Alaska must pay. First-class cities in Alaska that are not within an organized borough also face that same requirement, including Craig, Klawock and Hydaburg.
The borough contends that this requirement is unfair and unconstitutional, and that required school funding is an unlawful de facto tax.
State officials have not been receptive to the borough’s arguments, though, and the borough has been considering options, such as a state ballot initiative; dissolving the borough; and suing the state.
Following its fifth executive session to discuss that last option, most of Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly voted to move forward with a lawsuit. Three voted no: Alan Bailey, Bill Rotecki and Jim Van Horn.
In an interview Tuesday, Borough Manager Bockhorst said that, in the last 15 years, the borough has paid approximately $50 million in required contributions.
“The required contributions are not uniform,” he said. “There are 53 school districts in Alaska. Only 34 of them are required to make local contributions. There is no rational basis for the 19 that are excluded. Some of those 19 have fiscal resources that are far in excess of the fiscal resources of the KGB or some of the other 33 municipal governments that are required to make a local contribution.”
Bockhorst said that he encourages other municipalities to join Ketchikan in its complaint.
“We will begin discussions with those municipal officials in the next month or two, and we’ll just have to wait and see how those discussions turn out, but I will say that the concerns expressed by the KGB are concerns that are shared by a number of other municipal governments,” he said.
Bockhorst noted that he and the majority of Assembly members are optimistic about the complaint’s chances of success. If they weren’t, he said, they wouldn’t be moving forward.
In a September memo, Borough Attorney Scott Brandt-Erichsen agreed that the borough’s primary arguments have a good chance of success. He was less optimistic about some other arguments supported by Bockhorst and independent attorney Robert Hicks, who has been researching the issue for the borough. Those other arguments include claims that borough taxpayers suffer from equal-protection violations.
Bockhorst said the next step is for the borough to solicit proposals from attorneys who would like to take the case.
Also Monday, the Assembly approved a motion to establish a sales tax holiday on Oct. 19. The Ketchikan City Council already has approved a similar measure.
(Note: This story has been corrected. The original version left out information that first-class cities in Alaska that are not within organized boroughs also are required to provide a local contribution to their schools.)