Students walk out of schools across Alaska to protest the governor's veto of education package

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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Students in Alaska's capital walked out of school Thursday and marched through the halls of the statehouse to protest Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy's latest education veto and the Legislature's failure to override it.

The walkout was part of a protest organized by the executive board of the Alaska Association of Student Governments, said Felix Myers, a student organizer from Sitka. Plans called for 40-minute walkouts at schools across Alaska, with 40 representing the number of votes lawmakers needed to override the veto. Lawmakers fell one vote short in their override attempt last month. The walkout was planned for around 11 a.m., a time chosen in part to minimize disruptions and to ensure participation, he said.

“We've tried to be heard, we've tried to be listened to and we’ve been ignored, and that's why we’ve gotten to this point,” he said in a phone interview from Anchorage. Myers is a student adviser to the state board of education but said he was not speaking or acting in that capacity concerning the walkout.

Dunleavy in March made good on a threat to veto a package overwhelming passed by lawmakers that called for a $175-million increase in aid to districts through a school funding formula. He complained the measure lacked provisions he supported, 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 those schools.

But those items lacked broad support among lawmakers, who questioned the effectiveness and cost of the untested teacher retention plan and expressed concern that allowing the state education board — whose members are appointed by the governor — to directly approve charters would erode local control.

After vetoing the package, Dunleavy said he was moving on to other issues, such as energy, but in a later statement said: “As the conversation around education continues, I will work with every member of the legislature to pass an increase in funding and needed reforms.” He has not specified what increase in funding he would support.

School leaders and advocates urged a roughly $360 million increase in aid — but nonetheless supported the package passed by lawmakers as a positive step. School officials have cited the toll of inflation, along with high energy and insurance costs, as they struggle in some cases with multimillion-dollar deficits and teacher shortages.

They also said unpredictable levels of state support make long-term planning difficult. Lawmakers last year approved a one-time, $175-million funding boost but Dunleavy vetoed half that sum. Lawmakers could not muster sufficient support to override that veto, either.

School funding is expected to remain a closely watched issue the remainder of this session.

During the walkout Thursday, students from Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé and supporters — including some legislators — marched roughly a mile to the state Capitol, with some carrying handmade signs and chanting slogans, such as “fund our future.” They chanted loudly in the Capitol halls, including on the third floor, where the governor's offices are, though Dunleavy was not in Juneau Thursday.

About two dozen students gathered in the House Finance Committee room and after a meeting on an unrelated issue had concluded, approached Republican Rep. Julie Coulombe. She is one of the lawmakers who voted for the education package but voted against overturning Dunleavy's veto. Coulombe welcomed their questions.

She said given Dunleavy's opposition to the package, she worried that even if an override were successful he would still wind up cutting at least some of the additional funding for schools when he got the state budget. She said she wants to keep working on a plan that would provide extra funding and get Dunleavy's support. She encouraged the students to stay involved.

“Don't lose hope, this is a messy process,” she said.

Rachel Wood, a student who marched to the Capitol on Thursday, said the event showed her young people can play an active part in what happens at the Legislature. She and fellow student Meadow Stanley said they hoped lawmakers who expressed support for education back that up by passing increased funding.