Alaska governor vetoes education package overwhelming passed by lawmakers

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy late Thursday vetoed an education funding package overwhelming passed by lawmakers and urged action on teacher bonuses and charter school provisions that have been divisive among legislators.

Dunleavy, a Republican and former educator, announced his decision hours ahead of a deadline he faced to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature. School districts have struggled with teacher shortages and, in some cases, multimillion-dollar deficits, and education leaders had urged the governor to let the package become law.

In late February, Dunleavy threatened to veto the measure, complaining it lacked provisions he favors, including a three-year program offering annual bonuses of up to $15,000 as a way to attract and keep teachers and changes to the application process for charter schools aimed at promoting such schools. He cited those again in the veto message he sent legislative leaders.

Both provisions struggled to gain traction with lawmakers. During a recent Senate Education Committee hearing, questions were raised about the effectiveness of such bonuses, and members of the Senate’s bipartisan majority have also raised concerns with the estimated cost of around $55 million a year. Senate leaders also cited reservations with allowing the state education board — whose members are appointed by the governor — to directly approve charters, casting it as an erosion of local control, and said broader issues around charter schools, such as facility and transportation issues, need to be analyzed further.

Still, lawmakers said they’d had discussions with Dunleavy following his veto threat aimed at trying to reach an agreement. The Republican-led House Education Committee even introduced a bill Thursday that would allow for board authorization of charters. But no agreement was reached.

Lawmakers were planning a veto override session for Monday. To be successful, 40 of the Legislature’s 60 members must vote in favor of an override. House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Republican, said earlier Thursday that if there is a veto override session, members would “have to vote their conscience and whatever they feel is best for their district.”

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an independent, said members of his coalition — which includes largely Democrats but also independents and a Republican — “stand ready to override this veto.”

The education package, which passed last month 38-2 in the House and 18-1 in the Senate, was billed as a compromise, reached after an at-times bitter fight in the House. The measure included a $175-million increase in aid to districts through a school funding formula; language encouraging districts to use some of the extra funding for teacher salary and retention bonuses; a state education department position dedicated to supporting charter schools and additional funding for K-3 students who need reading help.

The funding was far less than what school officials sought to counter the impacts of inflation and high energy and insurance costs, but education leaders saw passage of the bill as a positive step.

Margo Bellamy, president of the Anchorage School Board, and Jharrett Bryantt, superintendent of the Anchorage school district, Alaska’s largest, said the veto “undermines a bipartisan effort to make a historic investment in our children’s education.”

“In an already tenuous environment for public education in Alaska, the uncertainty and chaos this veto will have on districts’ progress to improve student outcomes cannot be understated,” they said in a joint statement urging a veto override.