New education bill will need to come from the Alaska House, say Senate majority members

JUNEAU — A day after lawmakers failed to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of a bipartisan education bill, Senate leaders said it was up to House Republicans to lead the charge on future efforts to pass education-related legislation.

On Monday, 16 of 20 Senate members and 23 of 40 House members voted to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of an education package, coming one vote short of the 40-vote threshold to undo the governor’s action.

The bipartisan education bill contained a historic $175 million increase to school formula funding; $13 million extra for homeschooled students; and funding for a statewide position to help parents navigate the charter school application process.

“We’ve given all the solutions we can. It’s now up to the House to step forward,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican.

Stevens said it was House Republicans who blocked Monday’s veto override vote from being successful. All 20 no votes on an override were from Republicans. Fifteen of those Republicans are members of the House majority caucus.

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House Republicans said they wanted to make another attempt at satisfying Dunleavy’s demand for action on his education priorities, which include allowing a statewide board he appoints to authorize new charter schools and paying teachers annual bonuses at a cost of roughly $180 million over three years.

But Senate leaders have indicated they are unlikely to make further concessions to the governor after they agreed on what they said was already a compromise in the now-dead bill. That bill included provisions to help parents navigate the existing charter school system, and language encouraging school districts to use the funding boost toward increasing teacher pay.

“Now we’re being asked to come forward with a compromise to the compromise to the compromise,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat and the lead Senate education negotiator, adding, “The ball is in the House’s court.”

Wielechowski said the teacher bonuses were “an expensive experiment.” He previously said that Dunleavy’s charter school proposal was a “nonstarter” for the Senate majority, with concerns that it could curtail the power of local school boards. Wielechowski said the Senate majority had offered multiple compromises to avoid the school funding veto. But none were successful.

At a Tuesday news conference, members of the Republican-dominated House majority said there was still time to pass another education bill before the end of the regular legislative session in May. But they offered few specifics on how they would advance the legislative process to achieve agreement with the Senate and the governor.

“We do want to see that education is funded. And we do want to have good policy,” said House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican.

Two new House Republican-backed education bills were introduced in the past week. Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, proposed an alternative to SB 140 that also included the governor’s teacher bonus proposal. McKay was one of 17 Republicans who supported SB 140 but then voted against the veto override.

[Alaska Senate panel advances resolution to lower threshold for overriding governor’s budget vetoes]

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, was also one of them. On Tuesday he advised school districts to write their budgets assuming that the Legislature would not increase education spending this year. He cautioned on Wednesday that a $680 BSA boost was not likely to pass.

“I’m always concerned about raising false hope, but I’m also not a quitter,” he said.

Several districts across the state have warned that without any increase to the Base Student Allocation, they will have to take drastic action to balance their budgets, including cutting teacher positions and increasing class sizes, closing special programs, and shuttering facilities.

The school board in Fairbanks is set to debate closing two schools Tuesday evening as Anchorage school administrators try to reconcile a $100 million deficit.

Lon Garrison, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said in a statement that it was imperative that everyone return to the negotiating table.

“Schools are closing, class sizes are increasing, staff cannot be hired or retained, facilities are neglected, and, increasingly, less safe. Families that have the means are leaving the state,” Garrison said.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, said it was ironic that Dunleavy, a fellow Republican, had lobbied legislators to sustain his education funding veto.

“The governor has talked for the past two years about prioritizing families, making this a family-friendly state,” she said, referencing Dunleavy’s bids to address 11 straight years of outmigration of working-age Alaskans. “These are families that are leaving, they’re going to leave if their kids are not getting a solid education,” she added.

Over the weekend, legislators reported receiving hundreds of emails and phone calls urging them to override Dunleavy’s education veto or to sustain it.

Several Republicans said on the House floor that they would sustain Dunleavy’s veto of SB 140 because it was not certain that a school funding boost in the bill would be funded. Dunleavy signaled at a Friday news conference that he would be prepared to veto school formula funding from the budget.

Palmer Sen. Shelley Hughes, one of three Republicans not in the Senate majority, said it was “stubbornness” that prevented the Senate majority from approving Dunleavy’s charter school proposal or his teacher bonuses.

”I think it’s more of a pride issue,” she said.

Veteran legislators have privately said that Dunleavy’s recent absences from the Capitol hampered the chances of his favored education policies being approved. The governor’s office confirmed on Tuesday that Dunleavy is in Texas for a major national energy conference. Dunleavy is scheduled to speak at the conference Thursday morning.

After first announcing in February that he intended to veto the education legislation without further action, Dunleavy spent significant stretches of the two-week negotiating period out of state, on trips to Alberta, Canada, and to Washington, D.C. His office has declined to answer questions on the purpose of Dunleavy’s trip to D.C., where he attended the State of the Union address as a guest of a U.S. senator from Arkansas.

McKay’s education bill has not been scheduled yet for a hearing in the House Education Committee. That committee was unable to meet for most of February because of disagreements between House Republicans.

Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a co-chair of the education committee who voted in support of the veto override, said he had not been aware of McKay’s education bill prior to its introduction. He said Tuesday that he was waiting for House Republican leadership to devise an education plan.

“It’s going to be up to the majority to set something in motion, try to bring the Senate along again, and the governor along again. That’s a pretty steep hill,” he said.

An alternative to a permanent school-formula funding increase is for extra one-time school funding to be added to the budget. Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a former teacher, said one-time school funding is “wasteful” and “inefficient” because administrators could largely not use it to hire new teachers or budget for the long term.

Bjorkman castigated his Republican colleagues who spoke on the House floor in support of education but then supported the veto of a funding increase. He said a lot of “wiggle” words had been used.

“There’s no two ways about it. People can say whatever they want to say about how they feel about education. But sometimes our votes — they are the words that speak the loudest,” he said.

With less than half of a 121-day legislative session left, legislators still need to pass a budget and consider policies to address a looming shortage of Cook Inlet natural gas. While Dunleavy on Friday said that it was time to pivot away from education and move on to energy policy, lawmakers in both bodies said education remained a priority.

“Nobody can leave this building this year without addressing education and having a good, strong result at the end for education,” McKay said.

“It feels like we’ve sort of finished one race, and now we’re all lining up at the start line again,” Ruffridge said.

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