School district leaders react to Dunleavy’s partial veto of proposed K-12 funding increase

the Alaska State Capitol
The Alaska State Capitol in Juneau is seen on Monday, June 19, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed Alaska’s $6 billion state budget into law Monday after vetoing more than $200 million from the document approved in mid-May by the Alaska Legislature.

The governor’s biggest single cut was half of a $175 million one-time funding boost for K-12 public schools. Lawmakers intended the addition to partially compensate for inflation-driven cost increases. Because school districts have already had to set their budgets for the coming year, Dunleavy’s veto leaves some of them facing additional budget cuts or the prospect of entering next year with nothing left in savings.

In the capital city, the Juneau School District was counting on a funding increase of at least $430 to the Base Student Allocation, the state’s per-student funding formula. Dunleavy’s veto leaves the funding boost at $340, which means the Juneau district now has a hole in its budget, and officials aren’t sure how it will be filled.

“It really depends on how the (school board) goes about it,” said Bridget Weiss, the district’s acting superintendent.

“They could increase the (pupil-to-teacher ratio) which means increasing class sizes. They could look at other one-time costs and reduce those. It really is going to be a bit of a puzzle,” she said.

a Dunleavy aide
Anna Latham, deputy legislative director for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, delivers the state budget to the office of the House Clerk on Monday, June 19, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

At the Anchorage School District, the state’s largest, superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said he and others at the district are “extremely disappointed in the governor’s decision to veto half of the much-needed public education funds. This year’s historic support from the Legislature was a critical investment in the future of Alaska’s schools.”

Roy Getchell, the superintendent of schools in the Southeast Alaska town of Haines, said school districts and the public testified loudly that they were facing a dire need for additional funding.

“Very clearly, I think Alaskans made their opinions known in public testimony. $340 is not — that doesn’t cover a dire need,” he said.

In the Bristol Bay School District of southwest Alaska, superintendent Bill Hill called the veto “super disappointing.”

“I think overall, the governor is sending a message with his cut … education is going to take a back seat to whatever his priorities are,” he said.

The governor’s reasoning wasn’t immediately clear. Unusually, the governor did not hold a question-and-answer session with reporters — his last news conference was April 17 — and his office declined a request for an interview. A question about the decision-making behind the amount went unanswered.

The budget covers state services from July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024, what the state calls Fiscal Year 2024. 

In a prepared statement about the budget overall, the governor said that it is “a responsible path for Alaska’s fiscal future.”

“Budgets should reflect the values of Alaskans; the FY24 budget accomplishes that. We continue to invest in public safety, public education, and economic development. While this is a responsible budget for FY24, I look forward to working with lawmakers and Alaskans to establish a long-term, sustainable fiscal plan,” he said.

Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, was among state legislators who were briefed on the governor’s decisions Monday morning and said that in those conversations, Dunleavy indicated that he could be willing to allow greater funding in a supplemental budget bill early next year if school attendance and budget figures this fall warrant the change.

“The big question is going to be on the education funding outside the BSA and that reduction,” Tilton said. “He did reduce that funding outside the BSA in half but with a commitment to continue the conversation through the interim and to look at what enrollment numbers and what other key numbers look like.”

Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, issued a statement condemning the veto and noting that the Legislature’s $640 figure was already below the $1,348 that would have been needed to keep the base-student allocation equal to inflation since 2015.

She said she supports an effort by the Legislature to override the governor’s veto, but multiple lawmakers said there will not be an override.

The Alaska Constitution requires three-quarters of the state’s 60 legislators to vote in favor of an override in order to overturn a gubernatorial budget veto, and school-funding increases lack sufficient support.

Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, is a member of the predominantly Republican majority in the state House. 

He is “disappointed” by the education number, but there was some sense that a cut was in the offing.

“The education one wasn’t too much of a surprise,” he said, “and I haven’t heard of anyone saying, ‘We need to revisit this and override it.’”

The education funding cut, while the largest of the vetoes, wasn’t the only item on the chopping block. The governor renewed his perennial opposition to state funding for public radio by vetoing funding approved by the Legislature for a fifth consecutive year.

The governor’s vetoes included many — but not all — maintenance projects at the University of Alaska and at K-12 public schools. 

The governor preserved most Legislature-proposed funding increases for child care and health care, as well as most changes to public safety funding.

Unusually, the governor vetoed his own request for additional money to pay for the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. The governor requested an additional $4 million for the program in a spring amendment after proposing flat funding in December. Lawmakers approved $5 million, but the governor vetoed the entire amount. 

The governor’s office said he wanted to return to his original flat-funding figure.

Overall, the governor’s budget vetoes, coming atop a balanced plan passed by the Legislature, would leave the state with a likely surplus of almost $300 million if North Slope oil production meets expectations and prices average $72 per barrel in the new fiscal year.

This year’s Permanent Fund dividend will be about $1,300 per recipient, below the amount proposed in December by the governor. The governor’s veto powers allow him to reduce appropriations but not to increase them.

This spring, Dunleavy suggested he might call legislators into a special session this fall to work on a long-term state fiscal plan. Legislators said on Monday that it remains unclear whether that will happen.

Reporter Claire Stremple contributed reporting to this article from Angoon.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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