When a Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly meeting in March was flooded by angry parents, teachers and citizens protesting potential budget cuts to local schools, Assembly Member Agnes Moran had a suggestion.
“Have you personally contacted any of your legislators?” Moran asked Colleen Scanlon, a School Board member who spoke during the public comment portion of the Assembly meeting as a citizen.
To an angry parent asking the Assembly not to force a steep budget cut onto the School District’s already diminished budget, the advice may have seemed out of step with the issue at hand.
But for Moran and other Assembly members, the recent controversy over the school district budget injects a fresh dose of adrenaline into local efforts to influence an Alaska-wide civic debate. And while elected representatives at the state level say a resolution may be years away, Assembly members and at least one borough official are hopeful. If things go their way, a new law clarifying Alaska’s constitution will solve one of the borough’s budget problems forever.
“The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development defines basic need as the level of funding that provides all districts with needed resources,” says Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst.
Bockhorst usually talks with careful deliberation. But when he gets going about the minutia of Alaska history and the effort to make the state fund the total cost of schools’ “basic needs,” you can tell the interest is both personal and professional.
“The rub comes in terms of how that basic need is funded,” says Bockhorst. “And the state fails to fully fund basic need for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.”
The borough manager’s goal, which he states with typical caution, is now the official Borough Assembly goal. That is: scrap what is legally known as the “required local contribution.”
In laymen’s terms, that’s the percentage of a school district’s budget that a borough in Alaska must pay. It currently stands at 20 percent, while the state foots the other 80. Ask a borough Assembly member, and they’ll be quick to tell you that the borough contributes more than the minimum 20 percent every year.
That 80/20 equation may seem generous to boroughs, but to Bockhorst and the Borough Assembly, there shouldn’t even be a “required” minimum contribution in the first place. They point to a passage in the state’s Constitution that says the state will establish a school system on its own.
Adding insult to injury, Agnes Moran says, is that some parts of Alaska do have their schools paid for entirely by the state.
“Theory being is that since they’re an unorganized borough, they don’t have the tax base necessary to support a borough, to support a local contribution. Now that isn’t correct. There are areas in the unorganized borough that have resources vastly superior to ours,” Moran says, “but because of the borough penalty, the education tax, tjhey have voted down on numerous occassions to organize as a borough.”
“They’re on education welfare, why get off it?” she adds.
The parts of Alaska Moran refers to were too underdeveloped, underpopulated or impoverished to form boroughs or provide for their own schools at statehood. But, opponents of the current funding program say, over time and through complicated legislative maneuvers, an unfair system has emerged. Now, they say, boroughs contribute more than $200 million a year to their local schools, while large parts of Alaska, including areas wealthy enough now to chip in, are not required to contribute anything.
Those who want to change the system, including Ketchikan’s Assembly, contend that communities in Alaska were promised around the time of statehood that they would not be penalized for forming boroughs. Even more, they claim, for a period of Alaska’s history the state did pay entirely for the schools.
That is the background, albeit a very complicated background. But plans to change the system are beginning to gather steam right here in Ketchikan.
A resolution recently approved by the Borough Assembly gives three options.
First, local leaders will try until June to convince state officials to sponsor a bill repealing the required local contribution.
Wrangell Rep. Peggy Wilson, who also represents Ketchikan, says the potential for that route in the near future is grim.
“The resistance is basically that we have a reduced budget, we don’t have enough money,” says Wilson. “We cannot sustain the budget we have. I wish I could just say it, that we’ve got this deal and we’re gonna go for it and it’s gonna make a change, but they’re just not gonna do it this year.”
If, or when, the legislative option fails by June, the borough’s legal counsel will give recommendations on the two remaining options.
One is, quite simply, to sue the state. But in a preliminary borough report on the school funding issue, lawyers already recommend against that expensive and time-consuming strategy.
Finally, the Borough could take its case to the people. Although a complicated and potentially lengthy procedure, voters could repeal the required minimum contribution through a statewide referendum.
If those three options fail, Agnes Moran has a fourth suggestion.
“Perhaps it’s time,” Moran says. “We could dissolve the borough. We were the first ones forced in, maybe we’ll be the first ones forced out.”
That “nuclear” option would absolve the borough of any responsibility to pay the required local contribution, and, theoretically, would force the state to pay for basic needs of Ketchikan’s schools.
But both Moran and Bockhorst agree that dissolving the Ketchikan Gateway Borough would prove complicated, to say the least.
In any event, over the next few months, a page will be turned in the ongoing debate over school funding in Alaska.