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Dunleavy threatens to veto public education funding bill unless legislators act on his priorities


Dunleavy threatens to veto public education funding bill unless legislators act on his priorities

Feb 27, 2024 | 9:50 pm ET
By Claire Stremple James Brooks
Dunleavy threatens to veto public education funding bill unless legislators act on his priorities
Dunleavy said he would veto an education bill that doesn't include his priorities in an Anchorage press conference on Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an ultimatum to state legislators on Tuesday, saying he will veto a multipart education funding bill unless lawmakers pass separate legislation that contains his education priorities.

Speaking from his office in Anchorage, the governor said lawmakers have two weeks to reconsider teacher bonuses and changes to the way charter schools are approved, two items that were voted down during the debates over Senate Bill 140, the education bill.

If they don’t act, Dunleavy said he will veto SB 140, killing a permanent funding formula increase sought by education advocates across Alaska. Legislators could override a veto, but it isn’t clear whether they are willing to do so.

“I want to thank the Legislature — the House especially, and the Senate — for passing what we have, (but) it’s half the point, it’s a three-legged horse, meaning it’s not going to run very far,” Dunleavy said.

The governor’s statement came as school districts across the state are in the midst of writing their budgets for the 2024-2025 school year.

Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, are considering whether to close schools or make deep cuts to the classes they offer. Many have been planning on the funding increase included in SB 140.

“When Senate Bill 140 passed the Legislature, the relief in the Capitol was palpable,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham. “The topic had really consumed the last several weeks. But the relief from the school districts and the gratitude that they expressed, was even more pronounced. Now, we’re back into the period of being uncertain and being in limbo.”

Dunleavy’s ultimatum that legislators , which was broadcast online and watched by legislators throughout the Capitol, is without parallel in recent memory, several said.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like what I just witnessed,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage and a 17-year veteran of the Capitol.

The same went for Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, in his 24 years within the Legislature.

Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River and co-chair of the House Education Committee, said she thought Dunleavy was “100% right.” She said she thinks there is support in the House to get some of his priorities through the legislative process in the next two weeks.

“Is it possible? If there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla. “Is it practical and easy? No.”

Both legislative chambers passed SB 140 by wide margins — 38-2 in the House and 18-1 in the Senate. While those 56 combined votes in favor of it are more than enough to clear the 40-vote requirement to override a governor’s veto, some Republicans who voted for the bill said they might vote to sustain a veto.

While the governor emphasized the need for teacher bonuses and charter school language, legislators said his demands lacked specificity.

Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, said it was clear that the governor wants to see some kind of teacher bonus and charter school provision, “but it’s hard to do that when you don’t know exactly what those things are supposed to look like, I will say.”

As passed, SB 140 would equal a $246 million annual increase in the state’s line item for public schools. There’s money for student transportation, for correspondence programs used by homeschooled students, for improved internet access at rural schools, and a $680 increase to the base student allocation, the per-student funding formula that is at the heart of the state’s budget for public education.The bill would set state education policy. Even if the bill becomes law, whether those amounts are included in next year’s budget still depends on the amounts included in the annual budget bill, which generally isn’t passed until late in the session.

The governor had proposed paying cash bonuses of $5,000, $10,000, or $15,000 per teacher per year, but that idea failed in a 20-20 vote of the House. Without a bonus plan, Dunleavy said the bill “does absolutely nothing, zero, for recruitment and retention of teachers.”

Bonuses were a top suggestion for recruitment in a recently completed state analysis, but senators raised concerns Tuesday about the cost of the governor’s plan and asked whether it would help the state retain teachers, not just hire them.

“There hasn’t really been a discussion about how good of an idea it is to bring in people from the Philippines and couples from the Lower 48, have them teach for three years, earn a $90,000 bonus, and then leave the state,” Wielechowski said, referring to the combined amount a two-teacher couple would receive over three years in a remote school.

Dunleavy also said SB 140 falls short of expanding the state’s ability to increase charter schools. Charters are currently approved and administered by local districts. His proposal was to allow his appointees on the state Board of Education and Early Development to approve them as well.

“It’s clear that charter schools are working well and deserve focus and expansion,” Dunleavy said.

The governor is absent from the Capitol and not expected to return until next week, meaning negotiations will have to take place by telephone or through intermediaries.

Charter parents and administrators aren’t all sold on Dunleavy’s plan to expand charters. Brandy Harty, the president of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, sends her children to charter schools in her district. As a charter parent, she said Dunleavy’s proposal does nothing for current charters and isn’t enough to incentivize new ones.

“Charter schools are feeling the lack in funding the same as every other part of our district,” she said. The Fairbanks district is considering school closures and increased classroom sizes next year.

“Instead of looking at opening new charters, without an increase in the BSA, we’re looking at charters closing for the same reason neighborhood schools are closing — because they can’t afford to stay open,” she said.

She said existing charters would be much better off if they had a liaison in the state’s Department of Education and Early Development. But she agreed with the governor that the state should be proud of its charter schools’ test scores.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for rural schools that must apply for internet cost subsidies. Wednesday is the deadline to issue requests for proposals from internet service providers for the coming year.

Schools now have to submit a request for two levels of service — 25 megabit or 100 megabit — then accept the appropriate proposal in late March, depending on whether SB 140 becomes law or is vetoed.

If legislators aren’t able to meet the governor’s demands — or don’t want to — and Dunleavy vetoes the bill, the Alaska Constitution requires the Legislature to meet in joint session no more than five days afterward to vote on sustaining or overriding the veto.

Forty of the Legislature’s 60 members would need to vote in favor of an override for it to pass. Stevens said senators haven’t begun to discuss that prospect and are focused for the moment on working with the governor.

“We’re willing to talk. We’re willing to listen and willing to see where we can go,” Stevens said, “but we’re a little concerned about the governor sort of saying ‘It’s my way or the highway.’”