Among the questions JFAC members are posing to state schools chief Tom Luna this morning: Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, asked about restoring funding for programs for gifted and talented students, which were shifted to the operating funds line during the economic downturn. Bolz said he’s had discussions with people who are concerned about training staff in elementary and middle school to identify those students; that used to be a $500,000 line item in the school budget. Luna said, “I think there is a need to be sure we’re always addressing that.” But rather than a separate line item, he said, discussions now are centering around “how does that become integral into the professional development we’re doing for all teachers. And if we’re talking about individualized learning and master-based learning, how do we integrate that into it?”
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, questioned Luna about his growth estimates for student enrollment next year, which are higher than those Gov. Butch Otter used in his budget. Luna and state education official Tim Hill said the department is confident in its latest projections; the result is an increased cost of $3.4 million.
Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, asked Luna about his recent comments to lawmakers about collecting Idaho’s sales tax on online purchases. “I believe that a way to keep taxes low is to make sure we’re collecting every penny we’re owed,” Luna said. That’s not just for schools, he said, but for “a number of obligations, education being the top priority.” With half of the state’s general fund typically going to education, Luna said, half of the estimated $60 million in online taxes owed but not collected each year could be money for education. Luna said that Idaho must address that, particularly if the state is committed to carrying out the recommendations of the governor’s education task force over the coming years, at a total cost of $350 million to $400 million. “I think it’s a discussion that’s overdue, and I think we need to find a solution sooner rather than later,” he said.