Alaska Supreme Court upholds local school contribution

JUNEAU — The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday upheld as constitutional a state requirement that local governments help pay for education, reversing a lower court decision.

The ruling came in a case filed against the state by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

In 2014, a state court judge ruled in the borough’s favor in finding that a required local contribution for schools violates a constitutional provision that says that no state tax or license proceeds will be earmarked for any special purpose. An exception to that includes royalty proceeds put toward the Alaska Permanent Fund.

But the supreme court, in a decision released Friday, said the required local contribution is not a state tax or license within the meaning of the dedicated funds clause of the constitution and does not violate that clause.

State Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills said in a statement that the high court’s opinion “respects the legislature’s decision to promote local-state cooperation in crafting and implementing the State’s education system.”

A message seeking comment was left for the manager of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

The opinion, written by Justice Joel Bolger, states that the minutes of the constitutional convention and historical context of those proceedings suggest delegates intended that local communities and the state would share responsibility for local schools. Over time, while the details of the program have changed, “the Legislature has never relieved local communities of their longstanding obligation to support local public schools,” the opinion states.

Bolger wrote the today’s program for funding for local public schools “falls squarely within the type of state-local cooperative programs the delegates sought to exempt from the constitutional prohibition on dedicated funds.”

Chief Justice Craig Stowers and Justice Daniel Winfree concurred in the decision but expressed concerns.

Winfree wrote that laws are presumed to be constitutional and parties challenging a law’s constitutionality have the burden of persuasion, with doubts resolved in favor of constitutionality. While he has “considerable doubt” about the constitutionality of the required local contribution, he said he cannot conclude that the presumption has been overcome in this case. He said he therefore agrees with vacating the lower court decision that the contribution is an unconstitutional dedicated tax.

But, he wrote, he does not rule out an ultimate conclusion that the required local contribution is unconstitutional, as a dedicated tax or otherwise, and does not join the court’s analysis or decision on that point.

“In my view the question cannot be answered definitively without a full interpretation and understanding of the Alaska Constitution’s public schools clause, which, apparently for strategic reasons, the parties did not confront,” Winfree wrote.

The public school clause states in part that the Legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the state.

Winfree wrote that he agreed with the court’s analysis in affirming the lower court’s secondary decision that the required contribution does not violate the appropriations clause or the governor’s veto clause of the Alaska Constitution.

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