Dunleavy’s education funding veto leaves Juneau School District with budget gap

a school bus at the state Capitol
A school bus full of preschoolers, their parents, caregivers and advocates pulled up to the Capitol building on Monday to hand out Valentine’s Day cards to state legislators on Feb. 13, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has vetoed half of a one-time increase in public education funding approved by the Alaska Legislature.

Now, Juneau school district leaders are grappling with a budget deficit just weeks before their budget is due to the state.

“To constantly be hitting a wall around adequate and timely and sustained funding is really frustrating,” said Superintendent Bridget Weiss. “It’s exhausting.”

Juneau School District leaders built a budget around an assumed $430 increase to the base student allocation, the formula that determines how much money school districts get from the state. Dunleavy’s veto makes the one-time boost just $340 per student.

The veto leaves the Juneau School District with a $758,000 shortfall, Weiss said. And there isn’t enough in the district’s savings to cover that deficit.

“Even if we said we’re going to use every penny of fund balance that we have so that we don’t have to make any further cuts — which you don’t want to do because that’s your buffer — we still wouldn’t quite have enough,” she said.

The Legislature needs 45 out of 60 votes to override a veto from the governor, which would also be enough votes to call itself into special session. 

Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl said the Senate likely has more support for a veto than the House does.

“I think an override is very difficult, but it is possible,” he said. “I think what it takes is education advocates around the state calling their legislators, saying, ‘This is not OK, this is hurting Alaska’s future, Alaska’s economy, Alaska’s kids.’ The votes aren’t there today, but what it takes to change legislative votes is citizen action.”

Meanwhile, with the district’s budget due on July 15, Juneau’s school board has less than a month to decide what to cut.

“Options are pretty minimal in how we do that, because we’re already pretty thin,” Weiss said.

In March, Weiss said the district might have to increase the pupil-to-teacher ratio — essentially making class sizes bigger — if state funding didn’t increase significantly.

The district was already bracing for less funding in fiscal year 2025, when pandemic aid runs out. This year’s budget includes $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds to pay for some teachers and online classroom materials.

Weiss and other school district administrators and teachers advocated for a permanent increase in school funding this session. She said there seemed to be a greater statewide understanding of the importance of public education.

“Hopefully that will be momentum going forward,” she said. “But for the moment, wow, it feels pretty deflating.”

Kiehl said legislators would continue to advocate for public school funding. He said the need is urgent.

“We’re going to have to get those resources into the schools, or we’re going to see outmigration, we’re going to see economic stagnation, we’re going to see unhealthy communities,” he said.

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