Coalition for Education Equity Executive Director, Sarah Sledge, provided testimony yesterday for House Bill 212's first hearing in the House Education Committee. Coalition for Education Equity worked last year to get this bill introduced, which would allow the REAA/Small Schools construction fund to also be used for major maintenance. Read the full text of Sarah's testimony below:
Good morning. My name is Sarah Sledge. I am the executive director of the Coalition for Education Equity, a statewide organization representing Alaska school districts, organizations, and individuals concerned about the quality and breadth of educational opportunities available to Alaska’s children.
Formerly known as Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children, or CEAAC, we advocated for education reform at the legislative level while fighting the Kasayulie and Moore lawsuits, which were settled in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Pertinent to today’s discussion of House Bill 212 is the Kasayulie vs State of Alaska lawsuit, which was filed in 1997 regarding the method of funding capital projects for education. At the time the lawsuit was filed, many of the physical facilities within plaintiff school districts were in dire need of replacement and/or major maintenance, exhibiting widespread deterioration, physical dangers, structural deficiencies, inability to satisfy relevant code requirements, and a lack of sufficient instructional space. Additionally, as REAAs, these school districts didn’t (and still don’t) have taxable real property or the legal authority to raise capital funds through a local capital tax levy or bond issue. At the same time, most municipal school districts had bonding capacity sufficient to raise capital funds and also had access to state funding for capital projects through the state’s debt reimbursement program. This resulted in disparities between facilities in plaintiff school districts and those in districts with the ability to pass local bond issues to raise the necessary capital for facilities funding, major maintenance and renovation.
In 1999, the court found that the State’s history and practice in funding construction of rural school facilities violated its obligations under the Education and Equal Protection Clauses of the Alaska Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. CEAAC and the State of Alaska reached a settlement in the lawsuit in 2011. Prior to the settlement, CEAAC worked with legislators in 2010 to win passage of Senate Bill 237, which directs 24% of funds allocated to bond debt reimbursement to REAA schools on the Department of Education and Early Development’s CIP list. This established a systematic mechanism for identifying funding amounts for rural school construction and was expanded to include small municipal districts in 2013.
When SB 237 was drafted and moving through the legislative process, there was discussion about including language in the bill that would permit the fund to be used for both school construction and major maintenance projects. However, the need for school construction was great, and so it was given priority. While several school construction projects remain on the CIP list, many have been completed and there is now a significant backlog of major maintenance projects in our REAA and small municipal school districts.
As a result, we again find ourselves in the situation of seeing deterioration of school facilities creating unsafe or uncomfortable environments, environments that interfere with or impede the ability of students to learn, or, at the very least, increased costs for maintenance. We are also concerned that continued deferment of major maintenance will necessitate a larger number of school construction projects in the future, at great cost to our state.
House Bill 212 seeks to allow the REAA and small municipal school district fund to be used for major maintenance in addition to school construction. We believe this bill follows the intent of the Kasayulie case, seeking to achieve parity in funding between areas that have bonding capacity and those that do not. The Coalition for Education Equity supports House Bill 212.