The state Senate put the cornerstone of Republican Gov. Phil Batt’s bare-bones 1996 spending blueprint in place on Wednesday, easily endorsing his $664 million state school aid package.
Although criticized by Democrats and a handful of Republicans as woefully inadequate, the aid package that consumes 49 percent of Idaho’s general tax spending cleared the chamber on a 22-13 vote.
It now goes to the House where passage was also expected.
While $43.5 million more than school districts are receiving this year, the package is $36 million less than the adjusted request of a coalition of parents, teachers and administrators - and even $18 million below the amount sought by GOP Schools Superintendent Anne Fox.
Fox said last week that school districts would have no choice but to seek property tax increases to plug the gap left by inadequate state aid.
But Senate Finance Chairman Atwell Parry, R-Melba, said the figure was set when lawmakers voted last month to cut local property taxes by $40 million statewide and make up the difference with cash from the state.
“This bill should catch no one by surprise,” Parry said. “We talked early on that this would be the amount of money if we gave property tax relief. When that decision was made, it had a great impact on the decision we made here today.”
Opponents of the aid package focused on the shortcomings of Fox’s staff at the Department of Education. They said the staff failed to provide the same kind of detailed information on the impact the aid plan would have on individual districts that lawmakers have received in past years from her predecessor.
“This year, sadly, none of that has taken place,” Sen. John Hansen, R-Idaho Falls, said. “The districts are frustrated.”
Parry said Fox’s office contacted him during the 90-minute floor debate to say all the districts were advised of the impact last week. But senator after senator said publicly that their district superintendents had no information on the proposal, and Democrat Sue Reents of Boise said her written request to Fox for that information was not fulfilled.
Critics of the aid package also worried about future court challenges.
Because of the dramatic change lawmakers made last year in the way the state distributes aid to the 112 districts, the 7 percent increase leaves essentially no money for districts to provide the kind of 5 percent pay increase for district employees that Batt has promised government workers.
That formula change was approved to end a legal challenge by school districts to the state’s financial commitment to quality education. Hansen warned that failing to maintain the same kind of financial commitment as last year would undo that effort.
“What this bill does is say that last year was a one-shot deal, and now we can go back to the way things were before,” Hansen said. “If we do that, we’ll be back in court.”
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