Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Dist. v. State, MATANUSKA-SUSITNA

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtCOMPTON; MOORE; MATTHEWS, Justice, with whom RABINOWITZ
Citation931 P.2d 391
Parties116 Ed. Law Rep. 401 BOROUGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a Municipal Corporation, June Tull, Kenneth P. Fallon, Donald L. Moore, and Roy S. Carlson, Jr., individually as taxpayers of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Donald L. Moore, as parent and next friend for Tyler J. Moore and Isaac D. Moore, minor school students, and Roy S. Carlson, Jr., as parent and next friend of Reave C. Carlson and Amber L. Carlson, minor school students, Appellants, v. STATE of Alaska, Steve Cowper, Governor of the State of Alaska, William G. Demmert, Commissioner, Alaska Department of Education, and the State of Alaska Department of Education, Appellees.
Decision Date31 January 1997
Docket NumberNo. S-5513,MATANUSKA-SUSITNA

Page 391

931 P.2d 391
116 Ed. Law Rep. 401
MATANUSKA-SUSITNA BOROUGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Matanuska-Susitna
Borough, a Municipal Corporation, June Tull, Kenneth P.
Fallon, Donald L. Moore, and Roy S. Carlson, Jr.,
individually as taxpayers of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough,
Donald L. Moore, as parent and next friend for Tyler J.
Moore and Isaac D. Moore, minor school students, and Roy S.
Carlson, Jr., as parent and next friend of Reave C. Carlson
and Amber L. Carlson, minor school students, Appellants,
v.
STATE of Alaska, Steve Cowper, Governor of the State of
Alaska, William G. Demmert, Commissioner, Alaska
Department of Education, and the State
of Alaska Department of
Education, Appellees.
No. S-5513.
Supreme Court of Alaska.
Jan. 31, 1997.

Page 394

Thomas F. Klinkner, Wohlforth, Argetsinger, Johnson & Brecht, Anchorage, for Appellants.

LuAnn E.B. Weyhrauch, Special Assistant Attorney General, and Bruce M. Botelho, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees.

Before RABINOWITZ, MATTHEWS, COMPTON and EASTAUGH, JJ.

OPINION

COMPTON, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough (Borough), the Matanuska-Susitna School District (District), and several individual plaintiffs challenged Alaska public school funding laws, arguing that differences in treatment between regional educational attendance area (REAA) school districts 1 and city and borough school districts, and among the non-REAA districts, violated their right to equal protection of the law under the state constitution. The superior court dismissed the equal protection claims on summary judgment, awarded attorney's fees against the Borough and the District, and assessed costs against the Borough, the District, and the individual plaintiffs. We reverse the assessment of costs against the individual plaintiffs, but affirm the judgment in all other respects.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

The Borough, the District, and the individual plaintiffs filed suit against the State in late 1986, alleging, inter alia, that the state system of school funding violated their right to equal protection of the law under article I, section 1 of the Alaska Constitution. Ruling on partial cross-summary judgment motions, the superior court dismissed the equal protection claims of all plaintiffs. The court held that the Borough and the District had no equal protection rights. 2 The court found that the challenged laws, AS 14.11.100 and 14.17.025(a) & (d), did not deprive the individual plaintiffs of equal protection.

The parties stipulated to dismissal of the rest of the claims, and final judgment was entered. The superior court awarded attorney's

Page 395

fees of $20,000 against the Borough and the District, rejecting their claims of public interest litigant status. The court also awarded partial costs of $6,557.28 against the Borough, the District, and the individual plaintiffs.

The individual plaintiffs appeal the denial of their equal protection claims. The Borough and the District appeal the award of attorney's fees. All plaintiffs appeal the cost award.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Equal Protection

The individual plaintiffs claim that their interests as taxpayers and their children's interests in education are impaired by the state school funding laws, and that an insufficient nexus exists between the state interests that justify these laws and the disparate treatment the plaintiffs claim to receive under them.

1. The challenged funding laws

The individual plaintiffs challenge two school funding laws: AS 14.11.100(a), 3 concerning state aid for costs of school construction debt, and AS 14.17.025(a) & (d), 4 concerning the local contribution required when districts receive state aid for operating costs.

AS 14.11.100(a) provides for state reimbursement of payments made by boroughs and cities to retire the indebtedness they incur for school construction. Through this section, borough and city school districts recover a significant portion of their costs of school construction. REAAs are not eligible for this program.

On its face, section 100(a) would appear to benefit borough school districts, such as the plaintiffs' district, while denying REAAs a comparable benefit. The individual plaintiffs argue, however, that this section actually works to disadvantage them. For debts authorized after March 31, 1990, the section provides that the State will reimburse only seventy percent of the annual debt service costs incurred during the fiscal year of reimbursement. AS 14.11.100(a)(6), (7). 5 The individual plaintiffs find that this section disadvantages them by comparing it to a section of Title 14 that provides for aid through construction grants. Under AS 14.11.008(c), REAAs are only required to contribute two percent of project costs in order to receive state school construction grants. 6 The individual

Page 396

plaintiffs argue that AS 14.11.100(a) effectively creates two classes of students and taxpayers: (a) those in "municipal school districts, which receive 70% state funding for school construction under AS 14.11.100"; and (b) those in "REAAs, which receive 98% state funding for school construction under AS 14.11.005--14.11.019."

In addition to school construction aid in the form of grants and debt reimbursement, school districts also receive state aid to help cover their operating costs. AS 14.17.010-.056. A district receives its "basic need" less a "required local contribution" less ninety percent of "federal impact aid." AS 14.17.021(a). Basic need is computed by totalling the amount or "units" of teaching required and multiplying this figure by the dollar value per unit, which is adjusted for cost differences among districts. AS 14.17.021(b), .031, .051, .056. In a city or borough school district, the local contribution is the lesser of (1) the equivalent of a four mill tax--a tax of four-tenths of one percent--on all real and personal property, or (2) thirty-five percent of last year's basic need. AS 14.17.025(a). REAAs are not required to make a local contribution. AS 14.17.025(d).

The individual plaintiffs argue that the local contribution requirement establishes three classes of students and taxpayers: (a) those in districts contributing the four mill equivalent; (b) those in districts contributing thirty-five percent; and (c) those in REAA districts, which make no local contribution. They argue that AS 14.17.025(a) and (d) combine to deprive them of equal protection of law because subsection (a) requires contribution from their district, while subsection (d) does not require any contribution from REAAs. They also argue that subsection (a) itself disadvantages them relative to students and taxpayers in other city or borough districts. Districts with a high assessed property value per student will pay thirty-five percent of basic need and thereby avoid having to tax at the four mill rate, while districts like their own will be forced to tax at the four mill rate. The individual plaintiffs contend that this creates a situation in which the districts with "the greatest ability to provide local support to education" are precisely those of which "a lesser tax effort is required ... than of any other municipal school district."

2. Equal protection analysis under the Alaska Constitution

Article I, section 1 of the Alaska Constitution provides that all persons are "entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law." In giving effect to our equal protection clause, we have employed a sliding scale approach to determine the level of scrutiny that is required in reviewing a challenged statute. State v. Enserch Alaska Constr., Inc., 787 P.2d 624, 631 (Alaska 1989); State v. Ostrosky, 667 P.2d 1184, 1192-93 (Alaska 1983) appeal dismissed, 467 U.S. 1201, 104 S.Ct. 2379, 81 L.Ed.2d 339 (1984). This approach involves a three-step process:

First, it must be determined at the outset what weight should be afforded the constitutional interest impaired by the challenged enactment. The nature of this interest is the most important variable in fixing the appropriate level of review.... Depending upon the primacy of the interest involved, the state will have a greater or lesser burden in justifying its legislation.

Second, an examination must be undertaken of the purposes served by a challenged statute. Depending on the level of review determined, the state may be required to show only that its objectives were legitimate, at the low end of the continuum, or, at the high end of the scale, that the legislation was motivated by a compelling state interest.

Third, an evaluation of the state's interest in the particular means employed to further its goals must be undertaken. Once again, the state's burden will differ in accordance with the determination of the level of scrutiny under the first stage of analysis. At the low end of the sliding scale, we have held that a substantial relationship between means and ends is constitutionally adequate. At the higher end of the scale, the fit between means and ends must be much closer. If the purpose can

Page 397

be accomplished by a less restrictive alternative, the classification will be invalidated.

Alaska Pacific Assur. Co. v. Brown, 687 P.2d 264, 269-70 (Alaska 1984).

This court exercises its independent judgment in deciding equal protection claims. State v. Anthony, 810 P.2d 155, 157 (Alaska 1991); Sonneman v. Knight, 790 P.2d 702, 704 (Alaska 1990).

3. The individual plaintiffs have failed to establish a foundation for an equal protection claim based on educational opportunity.

The individual plaintiffs claim that the educational interests of their children are adversely affected by the local contribution to operating costs required of the Borough by AS 14.17.025(a). They assert that invalidating the statute would result in more funding for their children's schools, leading to a better education. They also assert that educational interests require the highest scrutiny.

Where there is no unequal...

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30 practice notes
  • Glover v. State, Dot, Marine Hwy. System, No. S-12220.
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    ...2006). 97. Id. at 378 (quotations and citations omitted). 98. See Evans ex rel. Kutch v. State, 56 P.3d 1046, 1068 (Alaska 2002). 99. 931 P.2d 391 (Alaska 100. Id. at 397 (upholding statute requiring local contribution for educational expenses without applying sliding scale because plaintif......
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    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • December 6, 2013
    ...(1983))). 73.State v. Planned Parenthood of Alaska, 28 P.3d 904, 909 (Alaska 2001) (citing Matanuska–Susitna Borough Sch. Dist. v. State, 931 P.2d 391, 396 (Alaska 1997)). 74.Id. (quoting Alaska Pac. Assurance Co. v. Brown, 687 P.2d 264, 269 (Alaska 1984)). 75.See Church v. State, Dep't of ......
  • Planned Parenthood Northwest v. State, Supreme Court No. S-15010
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    • July 22, 2016
    ...AS 18.16.020(a)(4)(B). 42. AS 18.16.020(d); see also AS 47.17.020; AS 47.17.290(6). 43. Matanuska-Susitna Borough Sch. Dist. v. State, 931 P.2d 391, 397 (Alaska 1997) ("This court exercises its independent judgment in deciding equal protection claims."). 44. State v. Schmidt, 323 P.3d 647, ......
  • Evans ex rel. Kutch v. State, No. S-9313.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • August 30, 2002
    ...construction, or inspection or observation of construction of an improvement to real property"). 126. See ch. 26, § 5, SLA 1997. 127. 931 P.2d 391, 397 (Alaska 128. We also note that former AS 09.10.055 had the same differential impact on minors that the plaintiffs challenge here. Former AS......
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30 cases
  • Glover v. State, Dot, Marine Hwy. System, No. S-12220.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • January 18, 2008
    ...2006). 97. Id. at 378 (quotations and citations omitted). 98. See Evans ex rel. Kutch v. State, 56 P.3d 1046, 1068 (Alaska 2002). 99. 931 P.2d 391 (Alaska 100. Id. at 397 (upholding statute requiring local contribution for educational expenses without applying sliding scale because plaintif......
  • Heller v. State, No. S–13551.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • December 6, 2013
    ...(1983))). 73.State v. Planned Parenthood of Alaska, 28 P.3d 904, 909 (Alaska 2001) (citing Matanuska–Susitna Borough Sch. Dist. v. State, 931 P.2d 391, 396 (Alaska 1997)). 74.Id. (quoting Alaska Pac. Assurance Co. v. Brown, 687 P.2d 264, 269 (Alaska 1984)). 75.See Church v. State, Dep't of ......
  • Planned Parenthood Northwest v. State, Supreme Court No. S-15010
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • July 22, 2016
    ...AS 18.16.020(a)(4)(B). 42. AS 18.16.020(d); see also AS 47.17.020; AS 47.17.290(6). 43. Matanuska-Susitna Borough Sch. Dist. v. State, 931 P.2d 391, 397 (Alaska 1997) ("This court exercises its independent judgment in deciding equal protection claims."). 44. State v. Schmidt, 323 P.3d 647, ......
  • Evans ex rel. Kutch v. State, No. S-9313.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • August 30, 2002
    ...construction, or inspection or observation of construction of an improvement to real property"). 126. See ch. 26, § 5, SLA 1997. 127. 931 P.2d 391, 397 (Alaska 128. We also note that former AS 09.10.055 had the same differential impact on minors that the plaintiffs challenge here. Former AS......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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