Lawsuit over school funding heads to court

JUNEAU — A borough that sued the state over public school funding says municipalities are “coerced” into contributing to local districts, but Alaska compares it to other programs requiring local matches for state dollars.

Arguments are scheduled for June 2. The Ketchikan Gateway Borough sued in January, arguing a required local contribution for schools is unconstitutional. The borough claims the mandated payment constitutes a dedicated tax or dedicated fund and that it violates the Legislature’s appropriation powers. It also says municipalities are under threat of otherwise receiving no state aid for schools if it doesn’t pay.

The state says in court filings that the borough based its claim on a misreading of Alaska’s constitution. It says the borough also “relies on an unspoken, unsupported assumption that the Alaska Constitution requires all education funding to come from the state.”

Attorneys for Alaska contend the required local contribution isn’t new and likens it to other programs that make state funding dependent on local matches. The borough rebuts that analogy, saying municipalities can decide not to participate in match programs for capital projects, for example.

Part of the borough’s request is for “restitution” for the $4.2 million it paid as its required local contribution for fiscal year 2014.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough has filed a friend of the court brief in support of its fellow borough.

School funding was a hot topic during the legislative session that recently ended. While lawmakers flirted with changes to funding calculations and with raising the required local contribution, they ultimately decided to study how the state funds schools and further delve into the issue later. A bill to scrap the required local contribution, from Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, failed to gain traction.

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