Governor threatens veto of school funding increase


February 28, 2024

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 his proposals for the state to fund teacher bonuses and also set up a path through the state for new charter schools to bypass the local approval process, two items that were voted down during legislative debates over the education bill.

If they don’t act, Dunleavy said he will veto the bill, killing the largest increase ever in the state funding formula for K-12 education. The formula has not budged since 2017, and an increase is the top priority for 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 the legislation.

Statewide, the 11% increase in the per-student funding formula would cost about $175 million a year.

If signed into law and fully funded in the state budget, the increase would produce an estimated $440,000 more for the Wrangell district for the 2024-2025 school year, covering most of the deficit in the draft budget presented to the school board this week.

State formula funding covers about 60% of the Wrangell district’s operating budget.

“When Senate Bill 140 passed the Legislature, the relief in the Capitol was palpable,” said Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon. “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 Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a 17-year veteran of the Capitol.

The same went for Senate President Gary Stevens, of Kodiak, with 24 years in the Legislature.

Eagle River Rep. Jamie Allard, 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, of Wasilla. “Is it practical and easy? No.”

Both legislative chambers passed the bill 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.

Fairbanks Rep. Will Stapp 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 also would provide more state money for student transportation, for correspondence programs used by homeschooled students, and for improved internet access at rural schools.

The governor had proposed paying cash bonuses of $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 per teacher per year for three years, but that idea failed in a 20-20 vote of the House. Without a bonus plan, Dunleavy, as part of his veto threat on Tuesday, 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.

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

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

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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