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Assembly OKs School-Funding Measure as Court Case Leaves State Laws in Limbo

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly advanced a resolution Thursday that spelled out the minimum amount of money it will make available to the school district for the coming school year.  It’s a routine procedure, but this year’s resolution included some not-so-routine language that refers to big changes that may be coming in the way the borough, and the state, fund K-through-21 education.

The resolution before the Assembly Thursday states the borough proposes to provide about $28.6 million to the school district from local sources, mainly property tax revenues.

Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins says there the resolution provides a starting point for the Assembly in its annual process of determining the level of funding the borough will provide for the district.

“What I’ve done in past years while I’ve been mayor is the amount that I propose in my budget to the Assembly is what I have put in to the minimum-funding resolution,” Hopkins said. “Then the Assembly gets to take that and decide whether they want to stay with that, or they want to go down or they want it to go up.”

But this year’s minimum-funding resolution includes references to a case that could change the way Alaska school districts are funded. The case before the Supreme Court is based on a lawsuit the Ketchikan Gateway Borough filed last year challenging state laws that require municipalities to fund some of their local K-through-12 school districts’ budgets. The suit claims Alaska’s Constitution requires the state to pay all those costs, as it does for unorganized-borough districts.

The court ruled in favor of the Ketchikan borough in November. But the state appealed the decision in January and asked for a stay to keep the ruling from going into effect while the appeal is pending, which the court granted.

Borough Attorney Rene Broker told Assembly members that the case won’t get back into the courtroom until fall, at the earliest.

“They’ve indicated that oral argument won’t be ’til September and that will be long after you set your budgets and you do the levy,” Broker said.

In an apparent reference to Alaska’s ongoing budgetary turmoil, the resolution also declares that if the state fails to fund the minimum local contribution required by statute, the borough intends to increase the local contribution by $22.1 million, for a total of about $50.7 million.

The Assembly advanced the resolution on a 6-to-1 vote, with Lance Roberts voting no, citing procedural concerns.

“I don’t like the method that we use for this resolution, setting a minimum before the full budget conversation,” Roberts said. “So I will be voting against this resolution.”

John Davies and Christopher Quist were absent from the meeting.

The Assembly will begin formally begin work on the district’s budget on April 17th.

Editor's Note: The Fairbanks North Star Borough last year filed legal arguments in support of the Ketchikan Borough's lawsuit challenging the state's education-funding statutes.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.