Lessons learned from school funding outcome

The purest form of democracy is built within the initiative and referendum process. We have a representative democracy, which works well most of the time, but when the elected representatives act against the will of the people, the citizens have the right to rise up and petition their government for a change. This gives their representatives a chance to correct their action, rather than be voted out in a recall.

At our urging (June 11 editorial), we felt a petition was necessary to initiate a change. We felt that our government had acted against the will of the people when the assembly, counter to overwhelming public testimony at meetings, supported cutting municipal funding of the school below the state-allowed cap level for Skagway. A couple of citizens took up our challenge and hit the pavement. In a few days, they gathered nearly 400 signatures – almost as many people as who voted in the last municipal election. This was a staggering number that the assembly could not ignore. The initiative process worked, and the representatives eventually voted to support a budget amendment to restore municipal funding to the cap level.

What alarmed some in the public is that the four assembly members who changed their position on the cap funding then voted to cut a portion of the so-called outside funding amount, as part of the new budget amendment. In our mind, if the assembly was going to cut the school budget, then the extra funding was the area where it should have happened all along. It would have been better to have done this in April – they could have compromised on a figure then and avoided the painful process of facing an outraged public over cutting the cap – but the fact that they cut the extra funding now, after restoring the cap funding, does not go against the will of the petition.

We have always supported full funding of our education needs in Skagway. As citizens, we voted in 2007 for an extra percent of sales tax in the summer to support the needs of our community. One of the top needs noted at the time was our school, and this has not changed. But enrollment at our school has dropped to a point where there needed to be some cutting, painful as it is for us to accept. We felt the school district had cut enough and had presented a reasonable budget this spring, yet some of the assembly members felt the school could have done more. It took a long time, but the compromise we now have – funding to the cap with an additional $250,000 in extra funding – while not desirable to us, is at a level we can accept.

The citizens also should accept this figure, and reach out to the school board and educators to work on keeping our school’s performance at a high level. They should thank the assembly for funding the school to the cap and beyond. Many communities are not in the position to grant extra funding: Skagway is able to help, and it has. The amount of extra funding needed will continue to be debated every year until enrollment grows to a point where the school is sustainable at the cap level. It will be up to the citizens to elect assembly members who either support extra funding or do not, or who can compromise at a level the public accepts. One thing is certain, as evidenced by the recent petition: the municipal cap funding level is sacred and should never be toyed with again.

Finally, we respectfully disagree with our mayor that this issue has divided the community. We believe the passionate debate over the funding of our school did more to bring the citizens together than any issue in recent memory, even more than the fight for borough formation. While the final outcome over the funding issue may still divide some of us, there is a greater awareness of what our school needs: everyone working together to keep students here in Skagway and performing well, so the school’s enrollment can grow with a supportive community behind it. – WJB