Education funding dominates opening of legislative session

Alaska’s state representatives and senators returned to Juneau last week for the second regular session of the 33rd Legislature.
Debates over education funding dominated the first week of the session, and a bid to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cuts to the K-12 budget for the current fiscal year failed.
Last year, the Legislature gave a one-time funding boost of $175 million to the education budget for K-12 schools. Gov. Dunleavy cut that amount in half with a veto. The decision pushed many schools’ capital projects— including the Nome-Beltz’s roof replacement—further down on the waiting list for funding.
Under the Alaska Constitution, the Legislature could consider overriding the governor’s vetoes in the first five days of its session. An attempt to invite the Senate into a joint session to vote on the issue initially failed in the House on Tuesday, Jan. 16, the first day of the legislative session.
A joint session was eventually called on Thursday night.
A majority vote of three-quarters would have been required to override the governor’s veto, which is the highest hurdle in the nation. But, as only 33 lawmakers voted in support of the override and 26 were opposed, Gov. Dunleavy’s veto remained in place.
Rep. Neal Foster and Sen. Donny Olson, both Democrats, and representing the Nome region, supported the override.
“They really need the extra money,” Foster said of the four school systems in his district.
Foster told the Nugget last week that the override was politically unlikely to happen, but members of the Legislature had other reasons to push for this vote to occur.
“The political part of this is there are people who want to put other people on record as to whether or not they support or oppose education,” Foster said. “And there’s some people, primarily Republicans, who want to vote no, and not give our schools the extra money.”
The $175 million funding boost represented a $680 increase to the base student allocation, which is the amount of funding a school district receives from the state per student. Because this number has remained stagnant at around $5,960 for the past eight years, the Alaska School Board Association is now lobbying for a $1,655 increase to keep up with inflation since 2012.
With little hope for adding more education funding for the current fiscal year, lawmakers are now focusing on the budget for the upcoming state fiscal year, which starts on July 1.
“Going forward, we are working very hard on that,” Foster said. “I feel optimistic that we can get the extra money there. Even the folks that don’t want to give any money to education right now, they’re the ones who have said, ‘Fine, we don’t want to give $680, we’ll give at least $300 per student.’ So there’s something there. But of course, the schools need more in terms of the inflation from the last couple of years.”
Foster was referring to a $300 permanent increase to the base student allocation that Republican lawmakers have proposed in Senate Bill 140.
That bill started out as a law to address internet speeds in rural schools, but it was heavily amended in a hearing of the House Rules Committee last week. In addition to the $300 increase to the base student allocation, the bill now includes many conservative education priorities, such as boosts for charter schools and homeschooling programs.
Olson said that one of his next steps would be looking at the governor’s budget with a “fine-toothed comb.”
Dunleavy’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year does not include any increase to the base student allocation, and the $1,267,522,300 in total he wants to give to the education department represents a nine percent decrease from last year because of declining enrollment, according to the Alaska Beacon.

 

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