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Teacher merit pay plan clears Senate panel

BOISE - A divided Idaho Senate committee barely passed a teacher merit pay plan Tuesday, after weeks of hearings and heartfelt testimony and multiple revisions in the plan.

“I think this process has brought out the worst in just about everybody,” said state Sen. Tom Gannon, R-Buhl, a former critic of the plan who switched sides and backed it. The bill, SB 1436, cleared the Senate Education Committee on a 5-4 vote, and now moves to the full Senate.

Gannon said he was swayed because Gov. Butch Otter came out in support of the bill shortly before the committee vote, and because parts of the plan he’d been critical of earlier had been changed. The original Idaho State Teacher Advancement and Recognition System, or iSTARS, plan proposed by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna would have required teachers to give up their continuing contract rights – sometimes called tenure – in exchange for higher pay. That was removed from the plan, as were two-thirds of the raises.

As now structured, the bill, which Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde calls “iSTARS Lite,” would give limited numbers of teachers bonuses of up to $1,200 for student test scores, for taking leadership positions, or for teaching in hard-to-fill positions.

Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, urged support for the plan, which he is co-sponsoring. “I’m the first person to admit that the iSTARS program is not perfect,” he said. But he said it’s important for the state to move to a merit pay system. “I think it’s the right thing to do at this time,” he said.

State Sen. Stan Bastian, R-Eagle, countered, saying the plan is “fundamentally flawed” because it limits teachers who don’t qualify for the specific bonuses to just 1 percent in raises next year.

“We need to take a breather on this, push back a little bit, take the summer to look at possible changes,” Bastian said.

Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, likened the plan to “a poke in the eye with a stick – and we’re going to do this to you because we can.” Schroeder said the bonuses in the plan are “dished out like treats to dogs,” prompting a reprimand from Goedde, who told him, “Senator, that’s going a little far.”

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, said, “As we’ve said all along … we’d be happy to talk about this issue if we could just be at the table. … Then we could be talking about a program where everybody was on board.” She added, “Educators in Idaho deserve more than a 1 percent raise – our teachers deserve better than this.”

Last week, the IEA made an alternate pitch to the committee: For the same amount of money, give all school employees a 3 percent raise, increase the starting teacher salary from $31,000 to $32,000 a year, and add another 1 percent discretionary funding increase to Luna’s school budget proposal for next year to make a 2 percent increase. The IEA also offered to pay $15,000 toward the cost of an interim committee to develop a consensus teacher pay plan.

Luna called for a 1 percent increase for teachers plus the $20.55 million bonus plan for those who qualify. He also wants a 3 percent increase for school classified employees, 1 percent for school administrators, and a $500 increase in the minimum teacher salary to $31,500. His plan, like the IEA proposal, totals $33 million.

Luna said after Tuesday’s vote, “We still have our work cut out for us as we take this forward to the Senate and the House.” The governor’s endorsement Tuesday was key, he said.

“The governor and I agree that teachers deserve the same opportunities for compensation that other state employees have in Idaho, and that is an opportunity to be paid based on job performance,” Luna said. “We’ve started that process.”

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