A statewide gathering of school superintendents celebrated a landmark court settlement in Anchorage on Thursday.
“It’s a historic time,” said Mike Hanley, the state commissioner for education. “This settlement is great for our state. And great for our kids.”
Hanley told the Alaska Association of School Administrators that the settlement is a win-win. The agreement, which was announced earlier this week, ends a 14-year battle over school construction which pitted about two dozen rural school districts against the state.
The lawsuit was known as the Kasayulie case, named for the lead plaintiffs, Willie and Sophie Kasayulie of Akiachak, a Yup’ik village on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel.
“Fourteen years seems like a long time ago,” Willie Kasayulie told the superintendents. “All five of my children are now raising their own families.”
But Kasayulie says he’s glad his grandchildren will benefit from the settlement, as well as children across the state.
When the lawsuit was filed in 1997, it called attention to schools in rural communities that were not only unwelcome places to learn, but so dilapidated they were deemed unsafe. It also charged the state with favoring urban schools in construction spending, because it reimbursed many of the costs.
In 1999, the courts sided with the rural schools.
“The judge said the system we’ve got is unconstitutional and racially discriminatory,” said Charles Wohlforth, who is head of Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children. “You can’t get a much more stronger ruling than that.”
CEAAC helped finance the Kasayulie lawsuit, which Wohlforth says put pressure on lawmakers to fund rural school construction. Since the lawsuit was filed, the legislature has approved more than $1 billion in capital projects for rural schools.
“We were down in Juneau every year, and the ruling we had from the judge was sort of our calling card in the halls of the Legislature,” said Wohlforth.
When the lawsuit was filed, the urban-rural divide was at its widest in the Legislature. It was a time of looming budget deficits. Urban lawmakers balked at the high cost of building rural schools and felt their districts were being short-changed. Since then, the price of oil has risen and eased the urban-rural budget tensions.
Under the settlement, the state will spend $146 million over the next four years to build five new schools.
Emmonak, on the Yukon River, is slated to get one of those buildings.
The main part of the school was built in the 1970s. Inside, you’ll find garbage pails lined with plastic to collect water from a leaky roof. The building has also settled so the doors don’t close properly, leading to constant break-ins and other security problems.
The superintendent of the Lower Yukon School District, John Lamont, grew up in Emmonak and went to school when the building was new. He also taught in the same school and has seen how its deterioration has affected the community.
Lamont says schools are the modern day equivalent of the “Qasgig,” the sod houses where culture and survival skills were passed on by village elders.
Lamont says the “Qasgig” tradition explains why schools play a much bigger role in rural Alaska than they do in big cities, because they are a gathering place for the entire community and the focus of many important activities. He believes a new school in Emmonak will lead to a resurgence in community involvement.
“Not just from parents, but from uncles and aunts and grandparents and agencies coming in the school and working with the kids,” Lamont said.
He says it’ll also be good to see the children take pride in their school again.