Rep.

House considers, rejects multiple school funding amendments during Wednesday floor debate

Over several hours, lawmakers considered six different increases in the Base Student Allocation to public schools

None was the magic number Wednesday as debate about funding for Alaska schools kept state representatives in session late into the night.

The House started work on the education bill Monday, but disagreed on which version of the bill to consider. Multiple lawmakers lined up amendments that would have increased state funding for Alaska’s public schools.

Representatives opted not to work from either the most recent version of Senate Bill 140 approved by the House Rules Committee, which included numerous additional education initiatives championed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and House Republicans, or the version approved by the House Finance Committee at the end of last year’s session.

That meant lawmakers went to work Wednesday original version of S.B. 140, a one-page bill to allow districts to pursue more federal funding to improve the quality and speed of internet services in Alaska’s primary schools. That version didn’t include any additional funding for school operating costs or any of Dunleavy’s initiatives.

Over several hours, lawmakers considered six different increases in the Base Student Allocation to public schools, all of which were rejected by a vote of 19-21. Joining the losing side with the 16-member House minority caucus, consisting primarily of Democrats and independents, were three of the four members of the Bush Caucus representing rural districts including Reps. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, and C.J. McCormick, D-Bethel.

The process kicked off with Rep. Maxine Dibert, D-Fairbanks, whose amendment would have added $680 to the Base Student Allocation. That amount would cost the state about $375 million, and bring in more than $10 million in new revenue for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

“This action can finally give some security and predictability to our schools,” Dibert said. “Adopting this amendment sends a clear message that we hear the thousands of Alaskans that are telling us what their schools need.”

Dibert’s move acted as a springboard for other BSA proposals, including a $1,890 increase proposed by Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage, an $880 increase proposed by Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, a $1,270 increase proposed by Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, and a $1,413 increase from Rep. Ashley Carrick, D-Fairbanks.

“I think this is the magic number,” Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said of the $1,413 proposal, which has been pushed by public education advocates as compensation for the effects of inflation since the BSA has been largely flat-funded for the past decade. “If you want this problem at least to be solved for some period of time so we don’t have to readdress this, over and over and over, this is the number that is required.”

Rep. C.J. McCormick, D-Bethel, said he would be a “reluctant” supporter of proposed BSA increases that he said were still “woefully inadequate” for the needs of schools in rural Alaska.

“We are not being accountable,” McCormick said. “$680 is not accountable. We’ll take what we can get. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of rural Alaska. But I’m incredibly frustrated that this is where we’re at. We need more, we need to support our communities.”

Representatives additionally considered, and rejected, two separate proposals — both from Juneau Democrat Andi Story — to provide an increase to the BSA amount in the future. One would have tied the amount to inflation for the next year, while the other would have implemented an $800 increase over the next two years.

Lawmakers also tried unsuccessfully to add language to the bill that would put the state on the hook for funding charter schools, that would make state guidance about mental health education in schools more robust and that would allow districts to withhold student allotments from correspondence families opting out of state standardized testing.

By the time the House gaveled out at around 10:30 p.m., no changes had been made to the bill and lawmakers were set to pick the issue back up on Thursday morning.

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, described the House’s work on the bill Wednesday as “somewhat a bloodletting.”

“Everybody sort of (put) their cards on the table saying, ‘These are the things that are important to us,’” Ruffridge said. “Everything that we saw today has the ability to come back again tomorrow. Nothing that we did today kills anything (or) stops anything from happening. We’re going to reapproach this in the morning,”

Ruffridge, who has previously backed, but did not vote in favor of Wednesday, a $680 BSA increase, suggested that efforts to attach a BSA increase to Senate Bill 140 were strategic given the time-sensitive nature of the underlying legislation. Votes on Wednesday’s amendments, he said, should be viewed as singular responses to the strategy playing out on the House floor at that moment in time, rather than opposition to what’s being considered. The ultimate goal, he said, is to reach consensus.

“Is there going to be a time that comes up here in the next couple of days where people all get to yes? That’s obviously the goal,” he said. “Get to ‘yes’ is the goal.”

Both House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, and House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, said the day’s developments weren’t surprising.

“We’ve taken a couple of days to have some conversations to try to come together with some kind of bipartisan agreement,” Tilton said. “Those have not come to fruition yet at this time. So I felt like it was time to get the process moving. We had amendments ready and before us, and I think it is right for the public that we don’t sit here and just keep in a holding pattern. So this is where we went today.”

A similar process, hopefully with further progress on a final version of the bill, is likely to occur Thursday, Schrage said.

“I think we’ve had some productive conversations, nothing that we’ve actually been able to secure as a deal,” Schrage said. “But again we’re still in second (reading) and have some (amendment) options before us. And we’ll continue working to find a productive and hopefully bipartisan path forward that, again, will support schools and students at a time that they really need the support.”

While there’s time pressure to pass the internet provisions since schools must apply for the broadband grants by Feb. 28, Schrage said simply passing the current version of S.B. 140 is unlikely since Gov. Mike Dunleavy has indicated he will veto a bill that lacks his education initiatives.

“I don’t think we consider that to be an option,” Schrage said.

Tilton said while she hopes a final floor vote on the bill will occur Friday, that will largely depend on what happens Thursday. She said a deadline has not yet been set for House members to offer amendments to the bill.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com. Juneau Empire Editor Mark Sabbatini contributed reporting.

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.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, (second from right) confers with lawmakers during a House debate on education legislation on Monday, Feb. 22, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, (second from right) confers with lawmakers during a House debate on education legislation on Monday, Feb. 22, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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