Education nonprofit sues governor for not paying $20 million to Alaska public schools

May 1, 2019 | ADN | Tegan Hanlon

An education funding fight has boiled over into Alaska’s court system.

An Alaska education group on Wednesday sued the governor and the state education commissioner for not paying the $20 million to public K-12 schools that lawmakers agreed to last year. The lawsuit was filed in Anchorage Superior Court.

The group, Coalition for Education Equity, argues in the lawsuit that the executive branch has violated the Alaska Constitution by withholding the one-time payout of $20 million that the Alaska Legislature appropriated to public schools last year, months before Republican Mike Dunleavy was elected governor.

The $20 million is on top of the $1.2 billion in state money allocated to the schools under the state funding formula for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2019.

Gov. Dunleavy proposed a supplemental budget bill in January that included canceling the $20 million payout in the middle of the school year. The funds had not yet been distributed to schools, but district officials said they had budgeted for the money. For the Anchorage School District, it means the potential loss of nearly $5.8 million.

If the Legislature chooses not to act on the proposed legislation, the $20 million will be distributed according to law, said a statement from Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Dunleavy. Shuckerow said the governor’s office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The governor has until June 30 to distribute the money, said David Teal, director of the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division. That’s later than the money traditionally goes out. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development usually distributes one-time funding in late January or early February, according to department spokeswoman Erin Hardin.

The Coalition for Education Equity is asking the court to order Dunleavy and Education Commissioner Michael Johnson to release the $20 million to schools immediately. It also wants the court to declare that the executive branch has violated the Alaska Constitution by “impounding” money that the Legislature appropriated last year, the lawsuit says.

That $20 million stems from a budget compromise struck in May 2018. The Legislature passedSenate Bill 142, which included a one-time, $20 million increase to school funding for the current fiscal year. Then-Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, signed the bill into law.

The lawsuit argues that the governor has a constitutional obligation to execute state laws.

“I don’t know what to think of a governor who inherits a budget that was properly passed and refuses to write the checks,” said Rep. Harriet Drummond, an Anchorage Democrat who co-chairs the House Education Committee.

Drummond said it doesn’t appear there’s an appetite among members of the House to reverse last year’s funding decision.

The Alaska Senate on Friday voted 16-4 in favor of an amendment from Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, that asks the state to immediately pay the $20 million to school districts. The amendment wouldn’t go into effect until Dunleavy signs the budget.

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