KODIAK — The Alaska Legislative Council filed a lawsuit against Governor Mike Dunleavy and two of his staff Tuesday. The move was in response to Dunleavy refusing to distribute state funding to school districts due to a dispute over whether or not the appropriation of those funds in 2018 was in violation of the state constitution.
State Attorney General Kevin G. Clarkson announced Tuesday that the state would distribute funding to schools on the 15th of each month while the lawsuit continues.
Kodiak Island Borough School District Superintendent of Schools Larry LeDoux said that districts had been sent a letter by the Commissioner for the Department of Education and Early Development in June indicating that the state intended to distribute funds while the lawsuit was ongoing.
“So that’s no surprise,” he said, though he added that the funds that KIBSD would have typically received by July 15 had not yet arrived.
“As of today, we did not receive the money that we normally would have,” he said Tuesday.
LeDoux said that it’s hard to predict which way the lawsuit will go and what will happen either way, but he emphasized that the district is already spending the money that was allocated and will continue to spend more of it as the new academic year approaches.
“We just have to keep doing the best we can with what we have and maintain a positive attitude,” he said. “In September, those kids are going to be coming to school, and we need to be ready for them.”
The crux of the dispute is that Dunleavy says it was unconstitutional for the legislature to forward-fund school districts in 2018 by appropriating state funds for the next two fiscal years while it was working under a previous administration. In turn, the legislature believes that by withholding those funds, the Dunleavy Administration is violating an article in the state constitution by failing to adequately fund schools.
When lawmakers forwarded their proposed budget to the Governor in February, it did not include any details of funding for education, because school funding for fiscal year 2020 had already been appropriated.
In May, the Governor addressed the legislature’s forward-funding of education in a news release. The release stated that when the legislature left out funding for education from the FY2020 budget, it was attempting “to bind the hands of a future legislature and governor.”
The release points out that, according to an April 9 review by the Alaska Attorney General, the action violates the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition against dedicating future revenues and providing for an annual budget where the legislature and the governor can considering annual funding priorities. Clarkson issued a formal Attorney General Opinion on May 8, concluding that the appropriation was unconstitutional and a new appropriation was needed.
“This year we won’t look at reducing the size of the education budget if they put the funding in, so that we can have the conversation over the summer into the fall, make this coming year an education reform year, where we all work together to see how we can change things to get the outcomes we know we should have for all kids, regardless of what school, school district or part of the state that they’re in,” Dunleavy said at the time.
The Legislative Council, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the legislature, is made up of seven House representatives and seven senators. Speaking with the Kodiak Daily Mirror in early June, Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak), the chair of the Legislative Council, said that if the Governor didn’t distribute the education funding by July 15 –– the date by which the state traditionally sends out school funding each month –– the council would file a lawsuit.
Included in the lawsuit was a motion requesting that the state continue to distribute funds as the lawsuit makes its way through the courts. On Tuesday, the Clarkson entered into a stipulation that will put that into action
“We have a clear constitutional disagreement between the executive and legislative branches,” Clarkson stated in a news release. “But that should not impact our schools. Both the governor and the legislature agree funding should continue, even if we disagree on whether there is a valid appropriation to fund schools. The stipulation ensures that funding continues while the courts review the legal arguments.”
Clarkson has also agreed to seek an expedited briefing schedule to get the issue resolved as quickly as possible.
“I hope the court agrees to consider this case quickly, so we can come to a resolution on this important constitutional issue,” Clarkson said in the release.
In June, Stevens told KDM that the Legislature has forward-funded education “dozens of times,” in order to allow school districts to financially plan for the year ahead. If the legislature argues over education spending for too long, Stevens said, districts may be forced to fire teachers due to financial uncertainty.
Even if districts eventually receive enough funding to hire those teachers back, Stevens said the whole process can drive teachers away from the state.
“Many teachers say, ‘Why should I stay in Alaska when I’m being threatened with losing my job?’” he said. “Early funding or forward-funding of education, you get out of that situation. Many states do a two-year budget. They fund the budget for one year and fund the budget for the following year. That’s something we would like to work toward.”
Stevens said it’s “likely” that the next few years could see more of these exact budget battles –– a concern shared by LeDoux.
While LeDoux feels confident that the district will surmount whatever lies ahead, he pointed out that much of his job is consumed with concerns over levels of funding for the next academic year.
“I spend most of my time worrying about funding for the following year,” he said. “It really takes a lot of time that we could spend trying to enhance education opportunities for these kids.”
KTUU reported that the first disbursement of funds is set to be delayed 7-10 days to trigger the lawsuit. The other two defendants in the lawsuit are Dr. Michael Johnson, commissioner for the Department of Education and Early Development, and Kelly Tshibaka, commissioner for the Department of Administration.