After education bill veto override fails, major cuts to Anchorage schools back on table

The Anchorage School District is facing financial uncertainty after Alaska lawmakers upheld Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of a comprehensive education bill that would have infused nearly $50 million into Anchorage schools.

The district had been counting on the extra money to fund some of next year’s programs and staff positions, and Anchorage School Board members said Tuesday that without the promise of additional education funding, the fate of programs like IGNITE and some language immersion programs remained in jeopardy.

“The failure to override the governor’s veto creates uncertainty for the many districts across the state that are in dire need of an increase to the Base Student Allocation to combat years of flat funding and unprecedented inflation,” Anchorage schools superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said in a statement Monday. Bryantt was not available for an interview for this story, a district spokesman said.

“We have not lost hope yet, as ASD will advocate to include additional funding in the state’s budget this session. In the absence of funding from the State, ASD will be faced with considering additional budget reductions that could negatively impact our students’ education,” Bryantt said in the statement.

The school board in February approved a $630 million operating budget for the coming school year that included minimal cuts to classroom education by betting on a modest increase of at least $110 to the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, the state’s per-pupil funding formula. On Friday, in a letter urging a veto override, Anchorage School Board leaders outlined changes they had made to their budget based on a possible increase, including preserving the IGNITE gifted program, preventing class size increases and retaining educator jobs.

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

The bill that passed the Legislature included a $680 increase to the BSA. But the vote to override the veto failed 39-20, just one vote short of the 40-legislator threshold. The governor said he vetoed the bill because it did not include some of his priorities, including teacher bonuses and provisions for charter schools.

Dunleavy on Friday indicated there could likely be some kind of boost to public education funding even without the bill, but didn’t say how much, or how that money would be allocated.

“There’s going to be money in the budget,” Dunleavy said Friday about school funding during a news conference focused on the veto. “It could be $400, it could be $500, it could even be $700 — I doubt that,” he said of a possible BSA increase.

“It’s still reasonable to think there might be some funding,” board member Andy Holleman said Tuesday. “There’s also a distinct possibility there won’t be any funding. So at this moment, we’re sort of stuck.”

He said making budget decisions based on uncertain state funding is a challenging place to be.

“It’s like playing chicken, and the chicken’s been run over a couple times already,” Holleman said.

School districts around the state are dealing with similar challenges. On the Kenai Peninsula, the Peninsula Clarion reported that the school district proposed a budget based on an assumed $680 BSA increase that board members revised this week to assume no increase; in Juneau, the school board passed a budget with significant staff cuts that they said they would walk back if the state allocated more funding, the Juneau Empire reported.

This year, the Anchorage School District grappled with a nearly $100 million structural deficit that board members and administrators have largely blamed on years of stagnant state education funding.

After weighing a large number of cuts, the board voted at the last minute to add back roughly $9 million to the district’s budget to save the popular IGNITE program for gifted elementary schools, avoid class size increases for the second year in a row, and retain dozens of teacher and staff positions.

At the time, board members said they were hopeful that legislators’ strong bipartisan support of the education spending package signaled their intent to raise the BSA, which has not kept pace with inflation.

While no immediate changes to the district’s budget were imminent, Anchorage School Board president Margo Bellamy said the district planned to reconvene in June to determine whether it would need to make additional adjustments to balance its budget, depending on what happened at the state level.

That puts the board and the district in the difficult position of likely needing to make last-minute decisions about staffing and programs, Holleman said.

Corey Aist, head of the teachers union that represents most Anchorage educators, said the possibility that teachers’ positions and programs could be cut later this year “leaves many educators in limbo, and would also possibly encourage these educators to leave.”

Holleman also said he worried that an impact of the bill failing could be a further exodus of teachers from the district, which currently has over 600 vacancies and is struggling to retain and recruit new teachers.

Without additional state funding, the district will be forced to raise class sizes to among the largest it has seen, Holleman said, further increasing teachers’ workloads.

“I would not be surprised to see this have a ripple effect, an impact whether a fair number of people stay with the district, or teaching,” Holleman said.

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