Several Kenai Peninsula residents asked the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Tuesday to override Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce’s recent decision to veto $2.4 million of supplemental education funding. But the assembly refrained from doing so, at least for now.
The assembly approved the additional appropriation last month. Supporters of a veto override argued that the $2.4 million should be given to the district now in case state education funding for next year is reduced by the Legislature, which would also lower the maximum local contribution from the borough under state law.
Nikiski teacher Jesse Bjorkman thinks the district eventually needs to downsize, but still advocated for the funding, saying that the district could return the money if it receives flat funding from the state, which both the House and Senate are poised to approve.
“What can’t happen is we can’t hedge on the fact that we don’t know what money is out there. We can know if you take action,” he said.
Mayor Pierce defended his veto throughout the evening with a familiar argument: the district should utilize its own reserve fund balance before asking the borough for more money.
“What I’m hearing here is you want me to partner with you. You want me to agree with you. You want me to fully fund and then you want to protect your fund balance,” Pierce said. “What if we need some fund balance too?”
School board member Debbie Cary pushed back against Pierce’s comments.
“Yes, we have a fund balance. Yes, we have been spending that fund balance and when we spend it, we spend it in a logical way,” she responded. “We try to the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. It’s not possible anymore.”
However, good news for education advocates is coming out of the final days of the legislative session. Gov. Mike Dunleavy shifted gears Tuesday evening saying that he would not attempt to line-item veto education funding.
Pierce added that the Dunleavy administration told borough officials recently that the governor would also refrain from a contentious attempt to veto a one-time $20 million payment to school districts statewide approved by the lawmakers last year, which would amount to $1.2 million for the district.
“What we were assured is that Dunleavy cannot veto that. The $1.2 million will be coming to our district and we got some certainty there,” Pierce explained. “So I would say the FY19 fiscal year funding for the district is funded based on the determination that we made a year ago.”
Still, the good news didn’t stop many from pleading with assembly members to override Pierce’s veto.
“Come to our classroom. I work right over there and I would love to show you what we do,” Soldotna teacher Jessica Moore told assembly members. “We’re real teachers. This money you’re talking about, and I’m sorry I’m emotional, it’s my job.”
While the assembly refrained from calling such a vote, some of the five members who voted in favor the funding continued to advocate for the move.
“We don’t know what the state budget is going to do, we don’t know if there’s going to be a special session, we don’t know any of that,” Assembly member Kelly Cooper said. “I hear stress, I hear uncertainty. We can do the supplemental now and depending on what happens, we can adjust when we finalize our [FY]20 budget.”
If Cooper or other supporters on the assembly move to override Pierce’s veto, they will need to do so during their next meeting on May 21 and will need to flip at least one no vote in order to be successful.