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Small school district says state funding cuts have it on brink of bankruptcy

AP reporter Hannah Furfaro traveled to Mackay to see how a small school district is viewing the fight over education reform and funding changes in Idaho. The result: The local school superintendent says Mackay schools are on the brink of bankruptcy. “In the last four years in particular, Mackay has experienced an additional 17 percent loss in revenue that comes from the state,” Superintendent Karen Pyron told the AP, noting the district faces a $449,000 revenue shortfall next year. “We have reached a point where we're in our own fiscal crisis. We're on our own financial cliff.”

That's part of the reason behind the Idaho School Boards Association's push to revive pieces of voter-rejected Proposition 1 to give school districts the edge in negotiations with local teachers unions, Furfaro reports. Said Pyron, “I wouldn't want the teachers to have a permanent 5 percent reduction in their salaries. But it would help us through the next couple of years while we're waiting for other solutions to take place.” Click below for Furfaro's full report.


Small districts say school board bills needed
HANNAH FURFARO,Associated Press

MACKAY, Idaho (AP) — In the small eastern Idaho mountain town of Mackay, it's not unusual for Main Street to seem pretty quiet during the workday this time of year. The town's only coffee shop shuts down in the wintertime, and even during the lunch hour, the Tri-County Supply ranching store has plenty of open parking spaces outside the front door.

A community steeped in tradition, Mackay prides itself in its springtime rodeos and the 197-student K-12 school system — even the four-person cheerleading team.

But there's a sense of alarm here, too: The school district's superintendent Karen Pyron says Mackay schools are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In the last four years in particular, Mackay has experienced an additional 17 percent loss in revenue that comes from the state,” Pyron said, noting the district faces a $449,000 revenue shortfall next year. “We have reached a point where we're in our own fiscal crisis. We're on our own financial cliff.”

Mackey schools aren't unique. Karen Echeverria, Executive Director of the Idaho School Board Association, said she's heard similar worries from several other small districts around the state.

To help districts assert more budgetary control, Echeverria's association is insistent on pushing legislation in Boise to give districts more financial flexibility — even though voters in November rejected similar measures as part of the 2011 Students Come First reforms.

All three of the Students Come First propositions including technology for classrooms — teacher merit pay and school board-friendly restrictions on collective bargaining — were rejected by at least 56 percent of voters last fall.

Despite the message from voters, Echeverria says it's essential to fight for leaders such as Pyron and the other superintendents dealing with fiscal distress.

Echeverria says two new bills are designed specifically for schools on shoestring budgets: One would enable districts to reduce teacher salaries, currently forbidden under Idaho law; a second allows school boards to dictate contract terms if negotiations stalemate with the teachers union.

“All we're saying is, 'Look, school board members are the elected members in their district,'” she said. “It's their job and responsibility to take care of finances and budget of the district. If we can't come to an agreement, somebody has got to make a decision and that should be the board.”

Meanwhile, the Idaho Education Association teachers union and others who led the fight against Students Come First were shocked when the bills first circulated in the Capitol in January. In recent weeks, teachers union leaders have tried to find compromise with ISBA, though it's unlikely the union will support most of the measures.

Michael Lanza, co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together and the chair of the proposition 1, 2 and 3 “Vote No” campaign, said ISBA's legislation resurrects the “most egregious” components of the controversial public school overhaul.

“Voters did speak, and what voters did say was they didn't like the process that was followed,” Lanza said. “They also didn't like the details, otherwise they wouldn't have rejected all three (propositions).”

Penni Cyr, IEA president, said the real problem isn't school boards' flexibility to cut pay or set contracts. For schools such as Mackay, Cyr said, it's overcoming dramatic cuts in state support in recent years.

“What that is saying is we're still not going to give Mackay enough money to run its school, so we need to give them flexibility to cut teacher pay,” Cyr said. “I think it's coming at it backward.”

Union leaders and Vote No campaign veterans aren't the only ones questioning ISBA's strategy. Lawmakers are asking tough questions, too, Echeverria said.

“There have been some questions about why now, why are you doing it now, why aren't you waiting?” she said. “And our response is truly that we've got some districts that aren't going to make it.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the House Democratic Caucus asked ISBA to wait one more year and give Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's education task force a chance to offer reform ideas. That panel — composed of teachers, legislators, district officials, parents and business leaders — is expected to offer recommendations later this year, though Otter asked the panel not to take up collective bargaining issues.

“My great fear is when you're trying to build a collaborative project and the first thing you do is come out with bills that stick a thumb in somebody's eye, it's really hard to build a feeling of trust and collaboration going forward,” Rusche said.

The ISBA offered some concessions last week, offering to put one-year sunset clauses on four bills dealing with teacher contracts and bargaining.

For the time being, districts such as Mackay are trying to find makeshift solutions to challenges they face daily — like heating the high school's now dark and cold auditorium, which was taken out of commission to cut costs. A $150,000 supplemental tax levy up for a vote in March could help, Pyron said.

In Mackay, located in Custer County where much of the land is federally owned, those levies have become routine for the 517 residents who live in town.

Some say after years of supplemental levies, they're weary of approving another this year. Others, like Ivies Grocery Store owner Randy Ivies, say the Lost River Valley town's future could depend on it.

“If the schools close, there would be a mass exit (from Mackay),” Ivies, 56, said. “I'm afraid (the town) will do it to themselves.”

To help cut into the deficit, Pyron says she's pondering another $150,000 in belt tightening by cutting maintenance and student activities. The cheer team is one item on the chopping block.

But Pyron, in her first year as the Mackay superintendent, said the district will still be $149,000 over budget absent any major financial changes. The district's problems are compounded by disappearing federal funds and cash reserves.

To one day bring the budget in balance, Pyron knows Mackay Joint Schools will need more than the tools ISBA is trying to convince lawmakers to approve once again.

“I wouldn't want the teachers to have a permanent 5 percent reduction in their salaries,” she said. “But it would help us through the next couple of years while we're waiting for other solutions to take place.”


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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