History of Alaska Education Policy series: Creating REAAs and Settling Molly Hootch

Marshall Lind, former Commissioner, Alaska Department of Education, 1971-1983, 1986-87

I am responding to the question of what was my most significant accomplishment during my tenure as Commissioner of Education. In reviewing some of my files, I was reminded that exactly 38 years ago I was asked the same question by the then Executive Director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, Don Mackinnon, for inclusion as an article in the Council’s newsletter. His question was asked as I was preparing to leave the position that I was privileged to have held for 12 years. I said at the time that I felt the efforts to decentralize the state operated school system and create the Regional Education Attendance Areas and settling the Molly Hootch consent decree, thus resulting in new opportunities for rural secondary students, were the most significant and lasting changes in Alaskan education for which I had an opportunity to play a part. I feel exactly the same way today! My goal in writing this article is to give a bit of background to these issues and to recognize some of the many individuals who helped make these initiatives possible.

From 1971 to 1983, I had a chance to serve as commissioner during some of the most exciting times in state history. This was a time of optimism throughout the state with the settlement of the Alaska Native Land Claims, development of the oil riches of the North Slope, building of the pipeline, and the anticipation of a financial future unlike anything we had experienced as a young state. This optimism, coupled with real leadership in the respective Governors’ offices and the legislature, allowed us to make some major changes to our educational system that would likely be impossible under today’s fiscal and political environment. In my view, we had Governors and legislators who were true statesmen and stateswomen and partisan politics didn’t interfere.

At the direction of the State Board of Education, and with the support of Governors Egan and Hammond and legislative leaders, emphasis was given to make our educational system more responsive to the growing desire for local control, equity in funding and responsiveness to the educational needs of all students throughout the state. More than a decade since statehood the federal government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was still providing the education for the majority of Alaska Native students.

Article VII, Section 1. of The Constitution of The State of Alaska states: “The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions.” With the anticipation of increased state revenue, it was time to include every Alaskan student in our public school system with equitable funding and opportunities for locally or regionally elected citizens making the important policy and programmatic decisions.

Although the decentralization of the State operated school system and the implementation of the Hootch consent decree happened during the same time period, they were separate issues. All the schools not run by the first-class cities, boroughs, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were administered by the Alaska State Operated Schools (ASOS) headquartered in Anchorage and governed by a statewide board. For the 1975-1976 transition year, ASOS became the Alaska Unorganized Borough School District. Before the July 1, 1971 formation of ASOS the Alaska Department of Education still operated the state run rural schools. In looking at the statewide structure, it was obvious that the four on base schools in Anchorage and Fairbanks could best be served by the adjacent borough school districts. This would eliminate administrative costs as each of the bases had their own superintendent and support staff.

This change not only made sense programmatically but was seen as an important step in bringing the military and adjacent communities closer together over a common interest. Once the financial issues with the Department of Defense Schools and local and state board participation by military members were satisfied, the transfers went smoothly. The positive attitudes of the school boards and administrators in Anchorage and Fairbanks were critical in making this change happen in 1975. The Naval base schools in Adak would become a separate REAA and the Fort Greely schools would become a part of the Delta-Greely REAA.

As I indicated earlier, in the early 70’s there was a growing interest in the rural communities to have greater local control of educational decision making. In response to this growing interest, it was determined by the legislature that the unorganized borough could be divided up into 21 regional education attendance areas under its constitutional authority to establish service areas in the unorganized borough. The boundaries would be appropriate for general government purposes, and would be very similar to the regional Native corporation boundaries.

This is clearly spelled out in Alaska Statutes 14.08.031. It was also believed that in the future if the communities within the regions met the requirements of the Local Boundary Commission and chose to incorporate as a borough that transition to regional governance should be less cumbersome. Several regions have chosen to make the change and become boroughs.

The restructuring required for the establishment of the REAAs was to happen in just one year after the passage of the legislation. I believe at that time the REAAs covered close to one-half of Alaska’s land area but less than 15 percent of the state’s population, so the logistics of establishing 21 functional districts with all the fiscal and policy implications in this time frame was a challenge. People were excited and optimism was strong for being able to do this. We knew that the only way this project could be done successfully in that time period was to be able to work cooperatively with other state departments, the Governor’s office, educational entities, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Native organizations. We received excellent cooperation from the Association of Alaska School Boards first full-time executive director, Bill Overstreet; and executive board member and Skagway school board member, Carl Rose; NEA Executive Director Bob van Houte; former Anchorage school board member and Special Assistant to Governor Hammond, Sue Greene, and many others.

We knew that in order for this effort to be successful, we would need help from throughout the Alaska Native community. I called upon two outstanding Native leaders at the time to spearhead this effort on a contractual basis; Roger Lang from Sitka and Byron Mallott from Yakutat agreed to take on this challenge. They in turn, put together a team from throughout the state including Susan Murphy of Bethel, Sydney Huntington of Galena, June Nelson of Kotzebue, Sherri Spitler from Sand Point and Mike Johnson from Dillingham plus several other leaders. They in turn, teamed up with state officials, traveled throughout the unorganized borough, and covered everything from regional elections, budgeting, school law, board membership, etc. The success of this entire effort of regional governance was directly tied to the cooperative working relationships and dedication of many individuals and organizations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs schools were subsequently transferred to the REAAs over the course of several years with the timelines varied depending upon the will of the communities served with the last of the sixty-four schools transferring in the early eighties.

The REAAs began operating just like the city and borough districts on July 1, 1976, with the newly elected boards making all the fiscal, program, and hiring decisions. Many of the former AUBSD employees were hired to work for the new districts. The boards decided where they wanted to have their administrative headquarters located, an early indication of their ability to come together as a regional governance structure. These were significant decisions as there were a number of good year-round employment opportunities at stake.

The second issue that I would like to highlight is the settlement of the Molly Hootch consent decree. This was obviously a big deal in Alaskan educational policy, and I feel fortunate to have been one of many individuals involved with the resolution of this matter. Some have referred to this as a “landmark case” and Anchorage Daily News columnist Charles Wohlforth, in an article published on October 28, 2016, referenced this ”as the most consequential lawsuit in Alaska history to reverse assimilation policy over Alaska Natives.”

In the early 70’s; and at the direction of the State Board of Education under the excellent leadership of Board President Katie Hurley, the Department of Education started to dramatically change the direction of secondary education in rural Alaska. The missions of the state run regional high schools with dormitories in Nome, Kodiak and Bethel would significantly change. The expensive residential components of these schools were not working with extremely high dropout rates, and totally unacceptable levels of social and behavioral issues. The Nome-Beltz complex was turned over to the Nome City District, The Kodiak Regional facility was turned over to the Kodiak Borough and the Bethel Regional High School facilities became part of the Lower Kuskokwim REAA. The plans for large dormitories to serve hundreds of students in Anchorage and Fairbanks were cancelled. The boarding home program located in a number of communities and serving several hundred students was also phased out. Rural students leaving their families and communities to live with strangers for nine months, and in many cases attending large high schools was not an acceptable option for most.

All of these changes were taking place while the Hootch case, first filed in 1972, was working its way through the legal system. With the help of the legislature, especially Senators Frank Ferguson and John Sackett the state was starting to build more local high schools in some of the larger communities, and the pending settlement of the Hootch Case accelerated that effort. The settlement of the case was contingent upon the passage of a statewide general obligation bond issue in the amount of $50 million or probably around $235 million today-not an insignificant number. The bond issue passed 56.5% to 43.5% and things soon began to change in over 100 villages with ten or more secondary students. All of these efforts would bring about an end to the practice of sending students long distances from their homes and families to attend high school, in some cases as far away as Oregon or Oklahoma.

The construction or renovation of facilities was just one step in meeting some of the challenges of rural education. More would be needed in the use of technology, including instructional TV, computer-assisted learning, and possible short-term and focused residential career and technical programs. Some of these strategies were slow to materialize because of the complex challenges of affordable and reliable technology infrastructure—some of the challenges still faced today, almost 45 years later. There was still the need for a “new” Mt. Edgecumbe.

Community interest and pride increased as boards and advisory councils became actively involved in curricula and programs reflecting the local culture and values. The new facilities became true community centers, serving as locations for the entire village to gather, with the gymnasiums being extremely popular. As the number of high school graduates grew, so did the number of Alaska Native students pursuing post-secondary education. Many went on to graduate and later return to their communities as teachers or other professionals. At the same time, numerous REAA board members were gaining invaluable experience in regional governance of multi-million dollar operations, thus preparing them for other leadership opportunities in any number of endeavors. Employment opportunities grew for more educators, paraprofessionals, technicians, and other support staff.

As I indicated earlier, the Molly Hootch issue involved the hard work of a lot of people starting with Alaska Legal Services lawyers Chris Cooke and Bruce Twomley along with co-counsel Steve Cotton of the Harvard Center for Law and Education. These guys weren’t doing all this to make big bucks or names for themselves. They sincerely believed that providing for an equal opportunity for Alaska Native students to get a high school education was the right thing to do. The State Attorney General at the time, Avrum Gross, and Assistant Attorney General Ronald Lorensen played key roles in bringing the case to closure. Years of legally required follow up actions by the Department of Education were guided by the excellent work of Assistant Attorney General Bruce Botelho. For those readers interested in more of the specific details of the case, I suggest you search the internet as there are some excellent and comprehensive articles.

I stated at the beginning of this article that these major changes to education in rural Alaska happened because of the work of many capable and dedicated individuals. At the risk of overlooking someone, let me mention some of the outstanding members of the Department of Education at the time who played key roles.

The many complicated fiscal and administrative challenges of creating 21 new districts with no taxing authority were taken head-on and resolved by the competent work of Deputy Commissioner Dr. Nat Cole, Director Bill Thompson and Assistant Director Ken Grieser. Instructional programs and curricular matters, including bi-lingual education, were supervised by Director Dr. Marilou Madden with assistance from Assistant Director Dr. Dick Spaziani, Richard Luther and Gerry Hiley. Working hand in hand on a variety of policy matters with the new REAA’s were Special Assistants Sylvia Carlson and Dr. James Elliott. I might add that Dr. Elliott went on to serve as superintendent in 3 REAAs and 1 former REAA. The tremendous increase in facilities development activity was under the purview of Lee Hayes and architect Chris Roust. Ernie Polley, Dr. Bill Bramble and Dr. Al Hazelton were leaders in educational planning and assessment, computer-assisted learning, and instructional uses of TV. Their pioneer work led to the adoption of what would become the email communication system for all districts and much of state government. Compliance and reporting of the activities and progress, as required by the consent decree of the Hootch case, was done initially by Jeff Jeffers and in the final years concluded by Steve Hole and Lee Clune.

In summary, the creation of the REAA’s and the settlement of the “Molly Hootch Case” or “Tobeluk v Lind” clearly revolutionized education in rural Alaska. Obviously, implementation of initiatives of this magnitude wouldn’t happen without some glitches along the way with some areas needing fine-tuning and improvement over the years. If we wouldn’t have taken action on complicated educational issues such as these until we had perfect solutions it’s more than likely not much would have been done. In recent conversations I have had with numerous individuals directly involved with rural education over a span of many years, I am convinced, more than ever, that the decisions made almost half a century ago were the right ones at the right time. It was indeed a privilege for me to have been afforded an opportunity to play a part.

Additonal Resources

Sealaska Heritage Institute Lecture Series: The Molly Hootch Case with Co-counsel Bruce Twomley (video)

Tobeluk v. Lind – The settlement of the Molly Hootch lawsuit

More from the History of Education Policy series:

The History of Alaska Education Policy series seeks to provide historical context for Alaska’s current education policies from the perspectives of those who have helped to shape them.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines.