State asserts more reasons to dismiss school suit

Lawyers seek to have major funders behind lawsuit removed from the case

Posted: Monday, March 21, 2005

The state has given a judge two more reasons to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges the adequacy of Alaska's school funding.

State lawyers also want Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason to remove some of the plaintiffs from the lawsuit.

Those plaintiffs are the ones who are most able to fund the lawsuit, said Collin Middleton, an Anchorage attorney for the plaintiffs, which include parents, school districts, a citizens' group and a large teachers' union.

It's a high-stakes lawsuit.

In the past 15 years, 30 states have been sued over the adequacy of their school systems, says the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Plaintiffs have won about 20 of the lawsuits, and others are unresolved. Studies in recent years of the adequacy of school funding usually recommend increasing it by 20 percent to 40 percent, said education finance expert Steve Smith.

In the Alaska case, the plaintiffs responded to the state's most recent motions March 7. The state's reply is due Tuesday. No date has been set for oral arguments.

Judge Gleason already is considering a motion to dismiss Moore v. Alaska on the grounds that funding education is a legislative, not a judicial, function. Gleason heard oral arguments Tuesday and will rule later on the state's first motion.

The lawsuit is named after Kris Moore, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough parent.

The plaintiffs consist of parents in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Akiak, Aniak and Koyuk; the Yupiit School District and the Bering Strait School District; Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children, which is a nonprofit group of educators, school districts and others; and the National Education Association-Alaska, a union that includes 12,000 school employees.

They sued the state in August, saying state funding for schools is so inadequate that it doesn't meet the Alaska Constitution's requirement to provide an education.

They want Judge Gleason to order a study of what would constitute adequate funding and then require the Legislature to appropriate the funds.

The state Attorney General's Office has asked Gleason to dismiss the case for two further reasons: that the state is immune from lawsuits, and that the plaintiffs didn't include school districts and municipalities as defendants.

Under state statutes, the state can't be sued unless it agrees to be sued, Assistant Attorney General Neil Slotnick argued in the state's motion. The plaintiffs can solve that by naming state officials as defendants, but they haven't done so, he added.

The state didn't raise the question of its immunity from lawsuits in another education case, Middleton wrote in response. And it would be easy to change the name of the defendant from the state to the state's education commissioner, he said.

Courts also can dismiss lawsuits if they lack parties who are indispensable to a just resolution.

The plaintiffs should name school districts and municipalities as defendants because those entities play a role in whether an education is adequate, Slotnick argued.

School districts and municipalities aren't the problem, Middleton responded. The problem is that the state gives too little money for schools, he said.

The state also argued that most of the plaintiffs don't have a direct stake in the court's decision and therefore can't be parties to the lawsuit.

The Attorney General's Office wants Judge Gleason to remove from the lawsuit the school districts, the citizens' group and the teachers' union.

Slotnick said they don't represent the rights of schoolchildren, who are the alleged injured parties in the lawsuit and who are represented by their parents.

Also, in Alaska, political subdivisions such as school districts ordinarily cannot sue the state for constitutional violations, the Attorney General's Office said.

Teachers and schools have a stake in the lawsuit because they fulfill children's right to an education, Middleton argued. Moreover, the union has an economic interest in school funding, he said.

School districts face serious consequences if their students don't meet state and federal academic standards, he added.

The nationwide NEA, NEA-Alaska and Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children are paying for the plaintiffs' costs, Middleton said.

In some states, it has cost plaintiffs several million dollars to pursue adequacy lawsuits. In Arkansas, the winning plaintiffs' attorneys were awarded $9.3 million in fees and costs.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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