Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mayor Dan Sullivan is using up his nine political lives and may be on the last (at least with me) ...

Monday and Tuesday of this week I traveled as a member of the House Task Force on Sustainable Education to Kotzebue, Noatak and Kivalina to become more familiar with the Northwest Alaska Borough School District (NWABSD) and through that, rural Alaska schools.

It was eye opening.  With limited resources and in a challenging environment (to say the least) the NWABSD, in partnership with other regional entities -- the Borough, NANA, Maniiliq, Teck Resources and others -- is doing a remarkable job of delivering education to students throughout a geographic, and largely roadless, area a little larger than the state of Indiana.

Indeed, in some ways the NWABSD is breaking new and important ground.  As part of the visit, the Task Force received a tour and briefing about the District's Star of the Northwest Magnet School, a developing effort that combines on an integrated basis with the District's Alaska Technical Center (the only technical center in the state that operates as part of a local school district) and UAF's Chukchi Campus to train the Borough's youth in ways that fit closely with the workforce needs of both the area and the state at large.

To some degree Star of the Northwest is the old regional boarding school program in new clothing.  But rather than forcing kids away from their homes for general education and assimilation, the goal of that school and other, similar efforts elsewhere in the state (e.g., Nenana and Galena) is to offer students the opportunity to focus on various career "pathways."  From the briefing it appears that such efforts have the potential to provide a breakthrough in offering rural students with new opportunities, not only locally but statewide.  In much the same way as a private school would, the Star of the Northwest and other, similar schools are opening their doors as well to students from outside their districts.

But such efforts take money which to some degree is the responsibility of the state (Alaska Constitution, Art. 7, Sec. 1:  "The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools ....")  And, as we approach an era where overall state spending is going to be reduced one way or another within the very near future, it is important that we make certain we are focusing state funding on priority efforts.

Which explains the frame of mind I was in earlier this week when I started reading stories again about Mayor Dan Sullivan's proposal to spend state money on building new, to be municipally owned tennis courts in Anchorage.  This rekindled a line of irritation I had expressed earlier this year over the same subject, but this time my mind put it in real terms -- spending money on indoor tennis courts in Anchorage compared with minimizing funding to important programs like Star of the Northwest and other, promising initiatives in rural Alaska school districts.

This morning the news reports are that while some Anchorage Assembly members are proposing alternative uses of the money, Mayor Sullivan continues to support the use of the funds to build the tennis courts, the cost of which now, it appears, may be approaching $12 million.  One alternative appears to be to use all or a portion of the state money to buy some existing indoor courts from the Alaska Club, a private corporation, in order to make them municipally owned courts.

Given what I know of the state's fiscal situation and studied, learned and seen of state education funding since starting my service on the Task Force, I think there are many better, statewide uses of the funds.  To facilitate those uses, these funds should be turned back to the state general fund for reappropriation.  

That would demonstrate that Anchorage municipal officials, at least, understand there are more important uses of what are increasingly limited state financial resources than building -- or good lord, buying?? -- indoor tennis courts to benefit a very few at the expense of the many.

This is a very bad situation that is becoming worse and worse as time passes.  According to today's news report, for example, even Mayor Sullivan now admits that the cost of the courts has risen from the $7 million discussed earlier this year at least to $10 million.  To put that in perspective, that $3 million difference alone could fund a very much needed 5% increase in the revenues available to the Northwest Alaska Borough School District.

Mayor Dan Sullivan called me the first time I wrote on this issue in an attempt to defend the tennis courts and, at a minimum, redirect the criticism elsewhere.  He may call me again (or more likely after reading this, not).

But his continued push for the courts at yesterday's Assembly work session makes clear his involvement, as well as the ill conceived nature of this proposal.  Alaska is confronting an increasingly difficult fiscal future.  Facing that, it is clear that there are many, many, many, many more important priorities for the use of state funds than these tennis courts.

There is only one good choice remaining if the Mayor -- and Anchorage -- want to demonstrate they are good stewards of public funds.  The municipality should give the funds back to the state and allow them to be reappropriated to one or more of those higher priorities.

Mayor Sullivan is quickly using up his nine political lives.  Taking the right step here would restore a few.  If not, this may be his last, at least with me.