Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters during a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, following through on an ultimatum, vetoed a bipartisan education funding increase Thursday after members of the House and Senate failed to advance education items the governor supported.

Public school districts across the state had sought a significant increase to the state’s per-student funding formula, and hailed the passage of Senate Bill 140 in late February as a step in the right direction, even if the boost was less than they had sought.

But the governor criticized the final version of the bill in a subsequent news conference, saying it lacked his proposal to offer cash bonuses to certified teachers, and he lamented the lack of provisions addressing charter schools, which the governor has advocated as an alternative to traditional neighborhood schools. He also called for a different approach to funding reading education.

He reiterated his standpoint in his veto message.

“While I support the basic idea of education funding reform, this bill fails to address the innovations necessary to allow Alaskan students to excel,” the message said.

“True reform must embrace a willingness to provide alternative methods of education to meet the varying needs of our student population,” the message said.

Even with the funding increase, many school districts were planning to close schools, increase class sizes and eliminate optional programs to compensate for inflation-driven cost increases. Without the funding boost, those cuts will be exacerbated.

“It’s a disappointment,” said Haines superintendent Roy Getchell. “There was a lot in this bill to support a lot of students in our state.”

Legislators are already planning to vote on overriding or sustaining the governor’s veto. 

“I am looking forward to Monday,” said Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage and a member of a bipartisan group of legislators that unsuccessfully negotiated with the governor before the veto.

Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said late Thursday that while initial plans called for a vote Monday, Tuesday remains an option, and she plans to meet with Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, on Friday to finalize the schedule.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether an override vote would have sufficient support.

Forty of the Legislature’s 60 members would need to vote against the veto to overturn it, and although SB 140 passed the House and Senate by a combined 56-3 tally, some legislators who voted in favor of it said they would switch sides and vote to sustain a veto.

During Dunleavy’s first five years in office, state legislators have never managed to override one of his vetoes. 

Most members of the Alaska Senate’s 17-member bipartisan supermajority are expected to support an override, as are the 16 members of the House’s multipartisan minority caucus.

“The members of the Alaska House Coalition stand ready to override this veto and ensure SB 140 becomes law,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, late Thursday.

The big question is whether enough members of the 23-person, predominantly Republican House majority caucus will vote for an override.

“Alaska is divided on many things, and how much education funding is needed for different districts is also a divided issue,” Tilton said during a news conference before the veto. “So members are going to have to vote their conscience and do whatever they feel is best for their district if we end up going into that.”

After the veto, she said that she doesn’t know how an override vote will go. If it had taken place Thursday, “I would suspect that there would maybe be votes to override, but I don’t know for sure.”

If legislators do override the governor, the issue won’t be finished, something the governor acknowledged in a written statement sent to news agencies at the time of the veto.

The education funding increase in SB 140 is merely an adjustment to a formula, and that formula is subject to funding in the annual state budget. If the formula is a bucket, the budget is the water that fills that bucket.

Dunleavy will retain his budgetary line item veto power and could reduce any education funding increase through a budgetary veto that reduces the amount of water in the bucket.

“I will review the appropriations bills following the legislative session to ensure schools are being adequately funded and the state’s limited resources are being spent appropriately,” the governor said in his statement.

At least one Capitol lobbyist suggested on Thursday that legislators could attempt to neutralize the governor’s funding veto by speedily advancing a standalone education funding budget to Dunleavy’s desk before the end of the legislative session. Doing so would allow legislators the opportunity to override on a funding veto before the end of the session.

That would face even longer odds than overriding a veto of SB 140, however. Under the Alaska Constitution, overriding a budgetary veto requires 45 of 60 votes.

In the weeks between the governor’s ultimatum on SB 140 and his ultimate veto, the House Education Committee canceled most meetings due to a prolonged dispute between its two co-chairs

Hearings in the Senate Education Committee resulted in testimony opposing the governor’s teacher-bonus plan and his approach to charter schools.

Members of the Senate Majority, speaking Wednesday, said the issue of charter schools — and whether state education officials should be able to approve them over the objections of local officials — remained a key sticking point between legislators and the governor.

“I really think that the best decisions are made as close to the kids and the parents and the schools, rather than rather than in a statewide administration. So I do believe in local control. I think that that works best in education,” Stevens said.

Hours before the veto, the House Education co-chairs — Reps. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, and Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna — introduced a charter school-related bill on behalf of the governor.

Ruffridge said the bill is scheduled for hearings next week. 

“I think the governor is very supportive of charter schools. So we’re going to move this bill as quickly as possible,” Allard said.

Hours later, the governor vetoed SB 140.

Getchell said the Haines School is better positioned than other districts to weather the veto because of its healthy reserve fund balance and support from the borough, which allocated about $200,000 last year. But he said the vetoes amounted to the state not fulfilling its constitutional obligation of adequately funding public education.

He said he hoped parents would write to legislators to advocate for a veto override, but said the vote would likely be tight.

“I think it’s gonna come within one or two votes. I hope it goes to the side of overriding,” said Getchell.

Senior reporter Claire Stremple contributed to this article.

Local information contributed by Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News