Anchorage Daily News


A court decision called “Molly Hootch,” named after the Eskimo student for whom the suit was filed, has had a great impact on schooling in the Bush and resulted in the construction of new high schools in some Native villages.

By John Greely

Daily News Reporter

Fifth in series (September 18, 1980)
(Part 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 )

JUNEAU—If you don’t remember how $100 million worth of high schools came to be built in rural Alaska, just ask an oil lobbyist.

With much chagrin, the lobbyist will tell you that two years ago—in one of the biggest deals ever cut in the legislature—corporate income taxes on the oil industry took a giant leap with the help of Kotzebue’s Democratic Sen. Frank Ferguson.

Ferguson and other members of the Bush caucus pushed for the tax hike because the first $100 million it extracted from the oil companies was dedicated to building rural schools.

Later, in November of 1978, voters approved a $59 million general obligation bond for more schools, signaling an end to decades of inequities for some 3,000 teenagers who had to leave home each fall for a high school education.

Today, with the legality of that oil tax increase still under debate in the courts, education in many parts or rural Alaska remains a decidedly political affair, often waged far from home. Consider these examples:

 While these examples are the extreme, they illustrate some of the growing pains of a massive education system erected largely in the last five years from the oil wealth of Prudhoe Bay.

“Sure, there are problems,” Ferguson said in an interview this week, “but I feel they will be worked out…Many school districts in other states have problems in their early beginnings.”

In several of the 21 regional education attendance areas (REAAs) created by the legislature in 1975, the local school board is the only formal government residents have. So when elections are on tap, as they are in each school district on Oct. 7, voter interest, if not competition by candidates, is usually keen.

But the school boards—created in the wake of widespread dissatisfaction with the centralized state-operated school system—are hardly in complete command. The state—embodied by two men and two laws—still calls many of the shots.

The two men are Ferguson and Sen. George Hohman, D-Bethel, who together represent most of Western Alaska in the Senate and have had a large role in the state devoting a full third of its $1.5 billion annual operating budget to education—both urban and rural—at all grade levels.

Hohman, who authored the 1975 act setting up the REAAs, derives some of his influence from his brother, Ron, the superintendent of the Bering Straits district in Nome and an active legislative lobbyist. In addition, the senator’s sister-in-law, Jan Hohman, serves on the State Board of Education.

The two laws, meanwhile, include the historic 1975 act and the “Molly Hootch consent decree,” drafted by attorneys for the state and 126 villages seeking construction of local high schools.

Although not a legislative act, the consent decree has the force of law. And although they overlap, both laws give differing degrees of independence to local school officials.

Under the 19754 act, for example, regional school boards are allowed, but not required, to set up advisory committees in the communities they serve. But the consent decree mandates superintendents to “assure maximum on-going local community participation” in school affairs.

This conflict hasn’t surfaced in most of the districts where local advisory committees flourish today.

But in Northwest Alaska, where the villages of Noorvik, Buckland and Noatak have petitioned for attention from district headquarters in Kotzebue, the result is a lawsuit pitting the district and the state against the villagers and Alaska Legal Services Corp.

Ferguson told The Daily News that after several years of experimenting with local school committees in his region, officials found “a duplication of effort.” The latest complaints from villagers, he said, were generated by Alaska Legal Services trying to perpetuate itself and going into the villages and stirring up thing.”

Ironically, the problem of village parents worrying about school policies set by distant administrators was supposed to be solved by the 1975 act disbanding the state’s central administration.

On the other hand, another problem plaguing the new rural schools—high administrative costs—may have been more predictable.

Just as REAAs must pay top salaries to attract teachers, administrators are lured to the job by contracts making them among the highest paid public employees in Alaska.

George White, superintendent at Northwest Arctic, is paid $79,992 a year, has 42 days of annual paid vacation, a $90,000 life insurance policy and generous travel allowances. If he stays on the job for a full three years, he also collects a $10,000 bonus. Four of his assistants each earn more than $49,000 a year.

The Aleutian district, with only 19 teachers in all, is run by seven administrators, including superintendent Dick Bower, who earns $62,000 a year while handling his job from headquarters in Anchorage.

Those salary figures, plus the ages-old problems of high fuel and transportation costs, prompted the legislature to set a ceiling this year on administrative costs. From now on, lawmakers decreed, rural schools must spend at least 45 percent of state funds on “instruction.”

An audit of district budgets for the next school year indicates some of the REAAs have a long way to go to get under that ceiling. A legislative committee found last month that between 37 percent and 62 percent of state funds would be spent on “instruction” in 1981-82.

On the average, Department of Education figures show, the state spends about $6,400, or three times the national average, to educate one student for a year in rural Alaska. In cities and boroughs such as Anchorage, the state’s share of education amounts to about $2,500.

Higher costs in the Bush contribute to part of that urban-rural difference. The ability of urban residents to pay for education through property taxes also figures into the equation.

However, in another legacy of Molly Hootch, that burden carried by the city-dweller may soon be lifted, if Gov. Hammond has his way.

Friday: The future of Bush schools—and why city-dwellers should care.

(Part 6 )