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200 attend ‘listening session,’ union limits, charter schools among topics

A pair of themes — charter school funding and proposed new limits on teachers unions — dominated a two-hour “listening session” where House and Senate Education Committee members Friday got an earful from the public, the AP reports. Of the roughly 200 people who attended the hearing in the Capitol's auditorium, many who spoke urged rejection of several pending bills seeking to give school boards more power when negotiating with teacher unions. On Nov. 6, voters dumped similar laws that were part of public schools chief Tom Luna's “Students Come First” overhaul. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.


Union limits, charter schools focus of ed hearing
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press 

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A pair of themes — charter school funding and proposed new limits on teachers unions — dominated a two-hour “listening session” where House and Senate Education Committee members Friday got an earful from the public.

Of the roughly 200 people who attended the hearing in the Capitol's auditorium, many who spoke urged rejection of several pending bills seeking to give school boards more power when negotiating with teacher unions. On Nov. 6, voters dumped similar laws that were part of public schools chief Tom Luna's “Students Come First” overhaul.

Former state Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, a Boise Democrat, told the committee members that rather than resurrecting those issues so soon after they were roundly defeated, they should wait to see what proposals emerge from a 33-member task force called together by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to come up with changes for Idaho's public education system that have broad support.

“Do we not trust that task force?” Pasley-Stuart said. “Do we not trust the voters, who made their opinions very clear in the last election?”

Several bills promoted by the Idaho School Boards Association were introduced this week in the House and Senate that strongly mirror elements of the now-defunct “Students Come First” laws.

They would allow school boards to unilaterally impose contract terms on the teacher's union if negotiations fail; require the local teacher's union to show it has majority support from teachers within a district before it can negotiate for them; and give school board authority to lower teachers' salaries, rather than laying them off, when finances fall short.

A 1963 Idaho law now bars a decline in salaries from one year to the next for teachers with at least three years of experience, which school trustees feel curbs their ability to respond quickly to challenging financial situations.

Anne Ritter, the association's president and a Meridian School District trustee, told the House and Senate committees that the opportunity to cut salaries will provide “tools” for school board members to manage their districts.

“Most districts have had to run supplemental levies to augment their operating budgets,” Ritter told the House and Senate committees. “Our fear is the consequence should a levy fail… Under the current statute, the only option we have when we're required to make a dramatic budget cut is to cut positions, not to shrink the entire system.”

Others believe Ritter's group is moving too quickly.

Mike Lanza, a member of Otter's task force and one of the organizers behind the successful effort to defeat Luna's overhaul last year, suggested the School Boards Association was making the same mistake the 2011 Legislature made when it passed the “Students Come First” laws amid a charged environment when foes of the changes were marching around the Capitol.

“Voters objected most vehemently to the process involved in writing and passing those laws because other stakeholders were not involved,” Lanza said.

In addition to those concerned with Ritter's association's bills, charter school advocates — and many children now attending these alternative public schools — arrived at the Capitol in what was clearly an organized effort to bend lawmakers' ears about what they see as inadequate and unfair funding.

More than two dozen people, mostly from Sage International Charter School located just a few blocks from the Capitol, criticized an Idaho law that prevents the state's 44 charter schools from getting state support to help them fund their facilities. That forces them to direct money to buildings that otherwise would go toward education.

Graham Hill, a Sage student, told the committees that students like him benefit from moving to a nontraditional education environment.

“If charter schools around the state were given equal funding, just imagine how far we would go, and how well we would do,” Hill said.

The Idaho Charter School Network, a lobbying group behind the state's charter schools, is drafting legislation to help bolster their funding, said the group's lobbyist, Ken Burgess, on Friday.

That measure will get intense scrutiny from traditional schools concerned that any changes don't undermine their own finances, which they already see as inadequate.


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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