‘The ball is now very clearly in their court’

Senate looks to House on next steps for education funding

The ball is in the House of Representatives’ court when it comes to the future of state funding for K-12 education, Senate leadership said during a Tuesday press conference. The challenge was issued the day after lawmakers fell one vote short of overriding Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s March 14 veto of Senate Bill 140.

The comprehensive, bipartisan education package passed by an overwhelming 56-3 vote in the House and Senate in February, and would have increased the base amount of money the state gives school districts per student by $680 — a roughly 11.5% boost that would have been the largest increase in state history. The override failed 39-20, with 17 Republicans who supported the bill earlier voting to uphold the governor’s veto.

The same bill would have also established a new statewide charter school coordinator, funded reading intervention programs mandated for K-3 students in the Alaska Reads Act, bumped funds for student transportation, and allowed districts to apply for federal grants as a way to increase internet speed and quality in rural schools, among other things.

Consideration of education funding came earlier than usual this session, with many lawmakers identifying it as a top priority. The House and Senate in January considered overriding Dunleavy’s veto of half of the $174 million in one-time bonus funding approved by lawmakers last year — equating to $340 per student— but failed by a 33-26 vote, far short of the stricter three-fourths majority necessary for an override on budget items.

“The onus is now on them, I believe, on the House, to send us meaningful legislation,” Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said. “We’re looking closely at what the House will come up with to support education in the coming days and weeks. The ball is now very clearly in their court. If representatives dismiss Senate Bill 140 and all the good things that were … negotiated in that bill, you really have to tell us what you want to replace it with.”

Anchorage Democrat Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who Stevens described as the Senate majority’s “lead negotiator” on Senate Bill 140, said the Legislature needs to act on school funding within the next two weeks because districts are building their budgets and may soon need to let staff go. Work on the bill, he said, has been ongoing since last year and he agrees the House needs to present a solution.

“We came up with a compromise to the compromise … everybody seemed to accept it,” he said of Senate Bill 140. “Everybody seemed to think it was a good package. … The bill was vetoed. Now we’re being asked to come forward with a compromise to the compromise to the compromise and, as the Senate president mentioned, I think the ball’s in the House’s court at this point.”

The bill, if passed, would have brought in an additional $11.4 million to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which is facing a roughly $16 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican who taught social studies full time at Nikiski Middle/High School before his election to the Senate in 2022, said failure to override Dunleavy’s veto as “significant consequences” for Alaska’s K-12 students.

If lawmakers choose to give schools one-time funding, rather than a permanent BSA increase in state law, school districts are incentivized to use that money on one-time expenditures rather than to supplement their ongoing operating costs, Bjorkman said.

“If our districts don’t receive those funds, they are only able to purchase a certain amount of educators and educational opportunities for our students,” Bjorkman said. “That’s math. There’s no hiding that.”

Members of the Republican-led House majority caucus said during a press conference Tuesday that education remains a priority, but they realized the need to get another bite at the apple after believing S.B. 140 ultimately wouldn’t make it across the finish line.

“The path moving forward, as far as this caucus is concerned, is that we’ll continue to work on education,” said House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla. “We do want to see that education is funded, we do want to have good policy. Whatever the other body and the (House) minority decide to do, that’s their decision on how they want to move forward.”

House Rules Chair Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, reiterated his comments from Monday’s joint session on the override, saying that it was “disingenuous” for lawmakers to hold out for a $680 BSA increase, which he doesn’t think school districts will get this session. It’s time, he said, to “rip the Band-Aid off” and “start talking realities.”

“I think it’s time for the education community to start planning their budgets based upon not getting it,” Johnson said. “There will be some funding — I have no idea what it will be — but I just want to be honest and forthright with people, and to lay out the realities that the likelihood of a $680 BSA inside the formula are not very good.”

House majority members said their focus is turning to House Bill 392, which was introduced Monday by the House Resources Committee. That bill has all the same pieces as the version of Senate Bill 140 vetoed last week, but also includes Dunleavy’s $54.5 million teacher bonus program.

The proposed three-year program would make $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 bonuses available to teachers depending on what school district they teach in and how rural that district is. Teachers working for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District would be eligible for a $5,000 bonus.

Dunleavy has said that the program would help recruit and retain teachers amid staffing shortages and give the state the opportunity to see how effective such incentives are. Some lawmakers, though, have criticized the program for not making bonuses available to school support staff, such as custodians and secretaries, and have questioned whether the state should spend so much money on a program that may not work as hoped.

The House deadlocked 20-20 on an amendment to add the program to S.B. 140 during floor debate earlier this session.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has previously expressed concerns the bonus program could actually exacerbate its staffing problems, especially at the district’s rural school sites. Teachers could get paid $10,000 more to teach in a remote school where staff are designated as rural by the state program, even though the working conditions would be similar to those at KPBSD’s rural school sites.

Dunleavy dismissed those concerns during a press conference held last Friday, the day after he vetoed Senate Bill 140. He said that the concern about luring staff with larger bonuses assumes the proposed program would work as intended.

“I don’t see that happening,” he said. “There may be some that do that, but I think what’s most important in that question is there is a belief that that will work, and that people will actually go to some of our places with the highest turnover. … I would love to deal with that problem and solve that problem.”

House Bill 392 was referred to the House Education Committee on Tuesday, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Johnson said Monday that it is “very definitely” the House majority’s plan to take up House Bill 392 sooner than the end of session.

The KPBSD Board of Education’s Finance Committee is set to convene before the end of the month to review the district’s draft budget document after Monday’s failure to override. The board earlier this month directed the district’s finance director to build the budget around the $680 BSA increase.

KPBSD is still accepting public comments and input on its budget via software that gamifies the process by allowing users to suggest cuts and submit comments. The district earlier this month relaunched the software such that users may only use a BSA increase of up to $680 to help balance the budget. The initial iteration allowed users to plan around a BSA increase of up to $1,200.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.