On October 4, 2011, the 14-year lawsuit seeking equitable funding of school construction in remote Alaskan villages was settled. Kasayulie et al., v. State of Alaska. The agreement calls for the governor to seek legislative approval for $146 million or more over four years. This money would be used to build or renovate schools in five Western Alaska villages.
The rural parents and school districts who are plaintiffs in the case alleged that the state’s financing formula for school construction discriminated against rural students, many of whom were Alaska Natives in violation of the Alaska Constitution and Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also alleged that inadequate funding of rural schools was a breach of the state’s obligations under the public school land trust.
Rural schools were being given limited funds for construction, leading many to be unsafe, crowded, and neglected overall, according to the complaint. The core problem seemed to be that many rural districts lacked the legal authority or the ability to pass local bond issues for capital construction and thereby to gain access to state funding for debt reimbursement that was available to many urban districts. Urban schools involved in a bond reimbursement program had up to 70 percent of their construction money provided through the state. The rural districts relied entirely on the state for construction dollars, and the Legislature would approve construction projects on an irregular basis.
In 1999 and 2001, Anchorage Superior Court Judge, John Reese, issued an order declaring that the funding system was in violation of the education and equal protection clauses of the state constitution and in violation of Title VI. However, no remedy or final judgment was entered at that time because in response the public school land trust issue, the parties agreed to begin a cooperative process to appraise the value of public school lands, a technical per-requisite to resolving that issue.
After lengthy delays in the valuation process and positive actions by the legislature in agreeing in 2010 to establish a formula for approving general obligation bonds based on a percentage of debt funding for urban schools, the parties agreed to settle the case by ensuring the funding over a four-year period for specified high priority construction projects in the five rural school districts. Because the current legislature cannot bind future legislatures, the governor’s commitment to introduce supportive legislation in future years was sought and obtained. If this school funding plan is not approved in future years, the plaintiffs have the option of reopening the case.