Flags flank the entrance to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office on Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Flags flank the entrance to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office on Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Dunleavy vetoes bipartisan education bill

Senate Bill 140 passed the House by a vote of 38-2 and the Senate by a vote of 18-1 last month

JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Thursday vetoed a comprehensive, bipartisan education bill that would have increased per-student state funding for public schools by $174 million, arguing it does not do enough to boost charter schools and ensure extra funding is used in ways he believes are most beneficial to students.

Senate Bill 140 passed the House by a vote of 38-2 and the Senate by a vote of 18-1 last month. The Senate concurrence vote kicked off a 15-day countdown. By 11:59 p.m. on March 14, Dunleavy was required to either sign S.B. 140, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

The governor had stated he would veto the bill unless lawmakers also sent him legislation addressing other education policy priorities of his such as charter school support and year-end teacher bonuses.

In addition to increasing the amount of money gives school districts per student, called the base student allocation, the bill also creates a new statewide charter school coordinator position, gives school district money to fund reading intervention programs as part of the Alaska Reads Act and would allow districts to apply for federal funding to help boost internet speed and quality in rural schools.

In a Thursday night statement, Dunleavy said his decision to veto came after “thorough analysis and careful consideration.” He said he supports an increase to the amount of money the state gives school districts per student, called the base student allocation, but S.B. 140 did not propose any new ways of boosting educational outcomes that weren’t tied to more money.

“SB 140 lacked sufficient changes in how charter schools are chartered in order to allow more students and families charter school possibilities,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “The lack of such reforms, given our success, with charter schools did not justify the passage of this bill that increases spending without needed reforms.”

There is still time, Dunleavy said, for lawmakers to address other education issues before the end of the session in May.

Both Senate President Gary Stevens and House Speaker Cathy Tilton said this week their plan is to hold a joint session to consider a veto override on Monday. A vote in favor by two-thirds of Alaska’s combined 60 lawmakers is required for a successful override. S.B. 140 passed by a combined vote of 56-3, however, some have indicated that they would not support a vote to override.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, who voted in favor of S.B. 140, said he will support Dunleavy’s veto and work on replacement legislation.

“I’ve been advocating for parents to have a greater say over their children’s classroom,” Carpenter said via text. “Why did the education unions have those provisions stripped out of S.B. 140? Very shortsighted. What’s good for parents is good for kids.”

Dunleavy also suggested that, in addition to vetoing S.B. 140, he may make changes to the final version of the state budget that could include provisions in S.B. 140 if that bill or similar legislation is revived.

“I will review the appropriations bills following the legislative session to ensure schools are being adequately funded and the state’s limited resources are being spent appropriately,” Dunleavy said Thursday.

As late as 4 p.m. on the day of the deadline, House Majority leadership said they weren’t sure what Dunleavy was going to do.

“At this point, as far as any kind of a veto on S.B. 140, I don’t have any information about that,” Tilton said during a Thursday press conference.

Senate Majority leadership said during their own press conference on Wednesday that they had not reached a deal with Dunleavy, and that charter school initiatives were a sticking point.

House Minority Leader Rep. Calvin Schrage said in a statement Thursday that the Alaska House Coalition, which has 16 members, “stands ready” to override the veto and “ensure SB 140 becomes law.”

“The governor’s decision to veto this comprehensive and bipartisan education bill is extremely disappointing,” Schrage said. “Throughout this session, Alaskans have made clear that the legislature must address the funding crisis facing our students, educators, and schools across Alaska.”

On Thursday night, the Kenai Peninsula’s legislative delegation — all of whom voted in favor of S.B. 140 — was split.

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, who co-chairs the House Education Committee and was the first to propose the $680 BSA figure, said Thursday afternoon that he was having “every conversation possible” to avoid S.B. 140 being vetoed.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, said he’d vote to override.

“I will vote to override the veto of the BSA bill,” Bjorkman said. “Timely BSA funding is vital to preserving educational opportunities for all students.”

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, did not indicate whether she would vote to override.

“I remain open to (negotiations) to pass reforms to improve the educational outcomes of all Alaskan students,” Vance said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland on Thursday night called the veto “a decimation of public education,” “out of touch with reality” and a “death knell” for public schools. He’d been optimistic, he said, that Dunleavy wouldn’t come back with a veto.

“I knew it was a good possibility,” he said. “I’m still very disappointed.”

The KPBSD Board of Education last week directed the district’s finance director to start building a budget that assumed a $680 increase to the BSA as included in S.B. 140. Under that assumption, the board also voted to send out more than 100 contracts for the district’s non-tenured staff, with the goal of providing them job security as the district struggles both to recruit and retain staff.

“Even a late reversal of one-time funding that would come in June, in so many ways is too late,” he said.

The veto, Holland said, means the district — which is facing a roughly $16 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year — must go “back to the drawing board.”

“The board makes the decision ultimately, but my recommendation is not to go with a speculative amount of money,” he said. “We can’t gamble on a $300 or $400 and not know what he’s going to do … Depending on what our legislators do over the next couple of days, if they override, it’ll tell us one thing, if not, then we will continue with a $13 to $15 million budget deficit it would be the single biggest hit that we’ve ever taken at one time.”

KPBSD School Board President Zen Kelly said Thursday that he does not plan to call a special board meeting before their next regular meeting on April 1. He is planning to convene the board’s finance committee on or around March 25.

“Depending on what the Legislature does in response to the veto, we will know the work that lies ahead of us,” Kelly said.

Dunleavy was scheduled to hold a press conference Friday morning to further explain his decision to veto the legislation.

This reporting from the State Capitol was made possible by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism’s Legislative Reporter Exchange. Alaska news outlets, please contact Erin Thompson at editor@peninsulaclarion.com to republish this story.

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