Members of the Alaska House of Representatives celebrate the passage of a sweeping education bill on Thursday. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Members of the Alaska House of Representatives celebrate the passage of a sweeping education bill on Thursday. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

House passes $680 BSA increase, with other education provisions

Bill now returns to Senate, which must pass it unchanged before it can head to the governor’s desk.

The Alaska House of Representatives opened Thursday with the words of Robert Fulghum.

“It is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together,” Rep. Sara Hannan, of Juneau, read from the final lines of Fulghum’s “All I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

By the end of the day, sticking together is exactly how lawmakers got across the finish line an education bill with a $680 per-student funding increase, more stringent language regarding charter schools, money for reading intervention for K-3 students and full state funding for students in correspondence programs.

The House’s passage of the bill on a 38-2 vote Thursday evening came after several days of closed-door negotiations, passionate testimony by lawmakers and more than a dozen failed or withdrawn amendments. Reps. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, and Mike Prax, R-North Pole, voted against the bill. Both members of Juneau’s legislative delegation voted in support of the final bill.

The bill doesn’t include any inflation-proofing of Alaska’s per-student spending amount, and it also omits the teacher retention bonuses sought by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, though an attempt to add the bonuses earlier in the evening failed on a 20-20 tie vote.

The underlying bill gives school districts the opportunity to pursue more federal funding to improve the speed and quality of internet in their schools. Because those applications must be submitted to the federal government by the end of the month, lawmakers faced a ticking clock to get at least the original legislation through.

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, said he is happy both that the bill could be passed so early in the legislative session and to be supporting a bill that offers a “well-rounded” approach to solving some of Alaska’s education issues. He specifically praised the bill for addressing funding, correspondence programs, charter schools, transportation and reading intervention.

“I’ve appreciated the process of working alongside many of the people in this room on having the very difficult conversation about how we support education,” Ruffridge said. “But education is not the only thing that we have to work on and that why … it’s important to be able to put something historic on the table, which is supporting education earlier in our session, Madam Speaker, so we can get around to working on some of those other things Alaskans really expect us to do.”

Immediately following adjournment, some celebrated with handshakes and hugs, others with whoops and desk-banging. Many lawmakers hailed the bill as a historic compromise — the $680 increase to the base student allocation is the largest nominal increase ever — even as some said it fell short of what they’d hoped for.

“This bill isn’t perfect,” said Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage. “$680 is the bare minimum. It should be much higher, but it’s remarkable to see.”

Not everyone was happy, though, with the final product. Multiple lawmakers criticized the process that led to the compromise package. One lawmaker described it as “ugly.” Another alluded to reneged deals. Two others argued about whether students had been used in the school funding debate as “pawns.”

Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, told school districts to be careful with the money lawmakers approved.

“I challenge the school districts: Spend this money wisely,” he said. “Don’t spend it willy-nilly. I’m not accusing anyone … there are only so many trips to the well that you can take. I don’t care how much money you spend, it’s never going to be enough.”

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said passing the bill will allow lawmakers to move on to other things.

“We had gotten to a point where we had to make some decisions about moving forward,” Tilton said Thursday. “I think that that might have had a little bit to do with just getting to some solution together in a bipartisan way so that we can move on to the big issue in front of us, which is energy in the state of Alaska.”

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, of Anchorage, said the provisions passed Thursday were in the works for days and that the final product will serve Alaskans well.

“This is something that really works for Alaskans across the state and whether you’re the executive body, or this body, or the other body, it just builds support for students and neighborhood schools, charter schools (and) correspondence schools,” Schrage said. “This is a way to grow Alaska and I hope that the governor will see that.”

The bill now goes to the Senate, where lawmakers must approve the bill as-is before it can head to the governor’s desk.

Sens. Bill Wielechowski and Löki Tobin, both of Anchorage, indicated Thursday night that they’re optimistic about the bill’s future in the Senate, where they said lawmakers are likely to consider the bill Monday.

Wielechowski said there were “a lot” of meetings that took place in the 24 hours preceding Thursday night’s vote, and that all sides agreed that something needed to be done for Alaskans.

“I think that the Senate will very like concur,” Wielechowski said. “I won’t speak for anybody else, but I think there will be a lot of support for this.”

Tobin said she’ll be voting in favor of the package.

“It has been a long couple of days to get here and I’m really happy that we were able to work out a pretty strong compromise that gets us all a little bit of a win and makes some of us a little bit uncomfortable, which I think showcases it’s a good piece of policy.”

Even if the bill passes as-is in the Senate, final approval must come from Dunleavy. Tobin and Wielechowski said they met with some members of Dunleavy’s administration earlier in the day Thursday to pitch what they believe is a “fair deal.” Tobin said she can’t predict where Dunleavy will ultimately come down on the package, but that she hopes he sees that it’s “a good piece of legislation and a good compromise.”

Wielechowski said Dunleavy has the right to veto the bill, but warned that doing so will “bog down” the Legislature and make it difficult for lawmakers to accomplish anything else this session.

Dunleavy’s office on Thursday evening declined to comment on or respond to the House vote on SB 140.

The BSA increase to the base rate of $5,960 would provide about an additional $5.2 million to the Juneau School District for the coming fiscal year starting July 1, according to district officials. The amendment passed while the Juneau Board of Education was in a special meeting seeking to move forward on a plan to address its financial crisis, with dozens of people testifying during a hearing expected to last several hours.

The extra funding would cover more than half of a nearly $10 million deficit the district is projecting during the coming fiscal year. Even so, a consolidation/closure of existing schools would likely be necessary to cover the remainder of the gap.

“It could lessen the severity of the actions we need to take, but I don’t think it eliminates it,” said Will Muldoon, chair of the school board’s finance committee, during a break in Thursday night’s meeting.

Board Vice President Emil Mackey, during the meeting after news of the bill’s passage was shared, suggested district officials and local residents not get excited about the BSA increase approved Thursday night, since the same amount of one-time funding was approved last year and Dunleavy vetoed half.

Muldoon said the 38-2 vote in the Republican-led House means the bill should be veto-proof, although Mackey noted the Legislature earlier this session failed to override Dunleavy’s veto from last year.

• Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com. Juneau Empire Editor Mark Sabbatini contributed to this story. This reporting from the Alaska State Capitol was made possible by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism’s Legislative Reporter Exchange.

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