News-Miner opinion: Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal to repeal a state law that provides for the reimbursement of local school districts for a sizable portion of their school construction and major maintenance costs has rattled local government officials.
And with good reason. Eliminating the program, which has been suspended for the past couple of years but is scheduled to resume for the 2019-20 fiscal year, would shift all of the costs to local property tax payers.
So with that much at stake, it is worth looking at what the authors of the Alaska Constitution had to say on the subject.
The finished product, the Alaska Constitution itself, has this to say, in Article VII Section 1:
“The Legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions ...”
But what does it mean to “maintain a system of public schools”?
At a minimum, you would think, it means to keep the schools in good working condition. And simple logic means fixing schools and building new ones as time wears on them and the population grows.
Now let’s go back a bit in the process to the constitutional convention that created our state’s guiding document.
In doing so we find a brief commentary from Dec. 15, 1955, from the committee that had been working on the education section of the nascent constitution. It states that “This paragraph on Education provides for the establishment and maintenance of the system of public schools and other educational institutions.”
Notice the word “maintenance.”
The commentary notes that the wording of the section is based on the Enabling Act, the 1955 federal legislation that authorized Alaskans to form a constitution in preparation for becoming a state.
As debate on the education section continued on the convention floor on Jan. 9, 1956, delegate Robert Roland Armstrong, of Juneau, rose at one point to discuss the work of the committee that had drafted it. He, as with the brief commentary, drew attention to the fact that the Enabling Act stated that “The provision shall be made for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools.”
Mr. Armstrong told the delegates that the Committee on Health, Education and Welfare “approached this whole subject of education with great care and consideration.” And then he proceeded to talk about the obligation of the state regarding the public schools:
“Many methods were sought out to provide and protect for the future of our public schools. We had to recognize that the public schools were our responsibility and that it was our duty to provide for all children of the state in matters of education,” he said.
“May I draw to your attention further the fact that we have used the words ‘to establish and maintain by general law.’ This is a clear directive to the legislature to set the machinery in motion in keeping with the constitution and whatever future needs may arise.”
That’s right. Mr. Armstrong, who would go on to serve as president of Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka for 10 years, said “whatever future needs may arise.”
Our public schools will always be in need of repair, upgrading and occasional replacement.
The state does live up to this by providing maintenance at the many schools throughout the state that are not included in organized local governments such as boroughs. In those places there is no local property tax mechanism, so the state pays the full cost of school construction and maintenance.
For borough school districts, the state has generally been reimbursing a majority of their bonding costs. While not being treated the same as the rural schools, the program nevertheless has provided a substantial contribution.
Gov. Dunleavy wants the Legislature to pull the plug on that program. Such an action would seem to run afoul of what the founders of the Alaska Constitution intended.