Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has released $20 million to Alaska public school districts, putting an end to schools’ monthslong wait for the funding.
This week’s payout resolves one of this year’s education funding battles in Juneau, but uncertainty remains about state funding for next school year.
“This is a good first step,” said a statement Thursday from Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “I sincerely appreciate the governor’s decision to distribute these funds. It’s my hope that we reach quick resolution on the bulk of K-12 education funding for next year, sparing parents, educators and students from further uncertainty.”
The $20 million is a one-time grant. It’s on top of the $1.2 billion in state money allocated to the schools under the state funding formula for the current fiscal year that ends June 30. The Legislature and then-Gov. Bill Walker approved the funding amount last year.
In January, Dunleavy proposed canceling the $20 million payout in an effort to cut spending, his administration said. The proposal fell in the middle of the school year and shocked district officials who said they’d already budgeted for their slice of the funding, including paying teacher salaries.
The funding would normally have gone out to districts in late January or early February. Instead, the Dunleavy administration opted to wait until the Legislature decided whether it would approve the proposed cut.
The Legislature did not include the cut in the new operating budget approved this week, triggering the release of the funding, according to Matt Shuckerow, Dunleavy’s press secretary.
The money should have hit districts’ bank accounts on Wednesday. The payments range from nearly $5.8 million for the state’s largest school district in Anchorage to about $6,500 for its smallest in Pelican.
At the Anchorage School District, the school board had put half of the money toward a contract with the local teachers union and used the rest to bring back 25 classroom teaching jobs.
District chief financial officer Jim Anderson said receiving the payment “reinforces our confidence that the Legislature and the governor continue to work through education funding.”
The dispute remains about school funding for fiscal year 2020 that starts July 1.
Last May, state lawmakers agreed to funding for public schools for two years. For fiscal year 2020, they approved no cuts and a $30 million one-time grant in an effort to provide schools with some budget stability, they said.
A majority of the Legislature contends that because it approved the school funding last year, it doesn’t have to be in the new budget for fiscal year 2020. That essentially locks the governor out of the education funding.
But Alaska’s attorney general argues the funding is unconstitutional and violates the annual budgeting process mandated by the state constitution and the governor’s right to veto.
Because the funding is not valid, it cannot be paid, says the Dunleavy administration. Dunleavy has said if the Legislature writes the funding into the budget, he won’t veto it.
A majority of legislators have said, however, that the funding is legal. They said they’re worried that if the governor’s view is upheld, he could use the justification to overturn other laws, not just education funding.
The first round of payments to school districts would normally go out around July 15. If the money is not distributed, the Legislature is prepared to sue the governor. There’s an effort to continue state funding to schools if the lawsuit moves forward.