- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

May 14, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: A look back at the results of the proclaimed ‘education session’

Tuesday afternoon in Wasilla, Gov. Sean Parnell signed House Bill 278, the Education Opportunity Act, into law. The omnibus school bill passed the Legislature in the days after the scheduled end of session this year, born of a down-the-middle compromise between those who wanted more funds put into the Base Student Allocation formula that determines the per-pupil dollar amount districts receive and those who wanted the money inserted as a one-time boost.

Those pushing for more formula funding pointed to the fact that the BSA hadn’t received a bump since the 2011 fiscal year, leaving districts squeezed by increasing costs for things like heating fuel. Although the Legislature, as guided by Gov. Parnell’s budget, provided one-time funding outside the formula, each year district representatives trekked to Juneau to make their case, knowing full well that without a sizable one-time shot in the arm, they would be faced with massive budget and staff cuts that would necessitate their worst-case scenario - big increases in the student-to-teacher ratio. Those wanting an increase to the formula got half of what they wanted - a $150 million boost that goes part of the way toward addressing increased fixed costs and inflation.

Those who wanted the BSA to remain the same for the fifth straight year argued a case from the perspective of raw numbers: Formula funding is permanent, so money that is added has impacts for every year afterward. Many of those arguing against increased formula funding have other concerns about the state’s education system, from its focus on public schools instead of charter alternatives to the growth of administration instead of funding flowing more directly into the classroom. It’s understandable that legislators have qualms about giving increased funds to a system that’s structured in a way they don’t favor. But the flip side is that withholding education money, especially in the absence of workable alternatives, guarantees that classroom outcomes will suffer.

The notion of obtaining increased control of the education budget through one-time funding shots is problematic for a few reasons. For one, it guarantees that each year will see a “Groundhog Day” scenario in which district officials and area legislators will waste time in a too-brief session by rehashing the same arguments for more state dollars, each year making piecemeal contributions via targeted increases as the formula becomes less and less relevant to the goal of providing full funding for schools. And if the goal is to ensure more money makes it to the classroom, restricting funds to a specific purpose can be counterproductive. For instance, a recent targeted allocation of one-time security money meant schools could do things like install more closed-circuit cameras (requiring more of district information technology staff) or hire security guards (increasing staff costs in positions outside the classroom).

Overall, the compromise approach might have been the best realistic result one could expect out of Juneau this year. Perspectives on the best direction for the state to take toward education funding are too varied for consensus on a comprehensive plan, especially given a 90-day session that’s too short to deal with complex issues like oil taxes and education. One display of the vast philosophical differences legislators have on education came this year with Sen. John Coghill’s failed measure to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow state funding of religious schools. The measure’s passage would have divided the focus of districts already grappling with new assessment systems for schools and teachers, to say nothing of concerns about violating the separation of church and state.

Legislators did make at least some progress this year, recognizing that school outcomes won’t improve simply by maintaining the status quo. But it’s hard to cheer a result that ensures everyone will be right back in almost the same position in January 2015. So as for that grade? Let’s call it an incomplete.


May 9, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: The village of Tanana needs Alaskas support

The killing of two Alaska State Troopers last week has devastated the agency. It has brought tears and sadness to Alaskans. And it has brought unspeakable grief to the family members of the two troopers, Sgt. Patrick “Scott” Johnson and Gabriel “Gabe” Rich.

It also has wrenched Tanana, a small community sitting where the Tanana River meets the powerful Yukon.

Tanana, too, is a victim in this crime. And Alaskans should recognize this.

Curtis Sommer, the chairman of the Tanana Tribal Council in the Native Village of Tanana, wrote a brief and moving condolence message that was published in the Daily News-Miner on Monday.

In it, Mr. Sommer writes not only of Tananas anguish but also of its wish to distance itself from the gunman.

“We wish to express our grief, tears, love and hugs that we want to give these brave officers wives and children and the rest of the Alaska State Troopers who serve urban and rural Alaska.

“We want them to know that this was the action of individuals and that this was not, and is not, Tanana.”

Tanana tribal leaders acted swiftly, on Tuesday to distance the community from two others who they believe played an indirect role in the deaths of the troopers, banishing the men for life. That decision was followed Wednesday by a supportive vote by the Tanana City Council.

One of the men banished is Arvin Kangas, whose action against a village public safety officer on April 30 led to Sgt. Johnson and trooper Rich being sent to the village, where they were killed. Arvin Kangas son, Nathanial, is charged with murder in their deaths.

The other man banished hasn’t had much notoriety. He is William Walsh, reportedly the leader of a group known as Athabascan Nation. The group doesn’t recognize the authority of the state government and has been in conflict with the Tanana tribal government.

Tribal leaders believe Nathanial Kangas was heavily influenced by anti-authority talk from both men.

Banishment is an almost unheard-of occurrence. Deciding to impose it shows just how deeply Tanana believes it, too, has been wounded.

The community will heal, in time. Alaskans can help by remembering that the actions of a few people do not define an entire community.


May 7, 2014:

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: National Guard sexual assault reports needed quicker action

The Alaska National Guard does an admirable job at protecting Alaskans. But its becoming abundantly clear that the organization needs to do far better at ensuring it protects its own service members.

News broke earlier this year that Gov. Sean Parnell has called for a federal investigation into sexual assault allegations within the Guards ranks in Alaska. It was the first time that many of those allegations had been made public, despite concerned Guard chaplains bringing them forward to a state legislator and the governors office as early as 2010.

Despite spearheading the well-intentioned and much-needed “Choose Respect” campaign against Alaskas shockingly high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, Gov. Parnell didn’t call for further investigation into those allegations four years ago. He said they were too general to act upon but that he talked to Guard Adjutant Gen. Thomas Katkus to ensure that service members were able to make reports that would be forwarded to the appropriate people in the chain of command.

Simply put, that response wasn’t adequate. The Guards process was to report instances of sexual assault through the chain of command, and as the 2013 investigation into sexual misconduct at Fort Greely demonstrated, the upper links in that chain are sometimes party to the very issues being reported. The general reports of sexual assault continued, and it wasn’t until late February of this year that the governor received a complaint that he felt was adequately specific to take action. When he announced that he was seeking a federal investigation, Gov. Parnell said he had full faith in Gen. Katkus despite the fact that members of the Guard had gone outside the chain of command to make their reports because of a lack of faith in the response by their commanding officers.

The response to the allegations from members of the federal government has been much swifter. Members of the National Guard Bureau are conducting an investigation independent of the Alaska Guards chain of command that is scheduled for completion this fall. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski have been quick both to declare their full support for the investigation and to call for a full release of its findings. Saying she was “shocked and surprised that the National Guard says it has no power to pursue” allegations of sexual assault at the state level, Sen. Murkowski last week told National Guard Gen. Frank Grass that she wants to be told what the National Guard knew with regard to the allegations of sexual assault and when the Guard knew it. Its one of the issues that Sen. Murkowski sought to address late last year by sponsoring a bill that would have reformed the military justice system. The bill would have removed from the chain of command the decision to pursue reports of serious crimes like sexual assault within the ranks of all branches of the military.

Although Sen. Murkowski’s bill failed to pass the Senate, its clear she is making a diligent attempt to address the issue and to make sure the National Guard Bureaus investigation is unbiased, complete and fully transparent to the public. The state and the Alaska National Guard could well afford to take a lesson from her on how to respond when allegations of sexual assault come forward.

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