February 24, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho facing stark choice on school cuts

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - Idaho faces a stark choice: Impose unprecedented budget cuts on public schools next year, or stave off those cuts but risk deeper ones the following year.

“I think it depends on how big a gambler you are, and I’m pretty pessimistic,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chairwoman of the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

The panel heard extensive presentations Tuesday on what the federal economic stimulus bill means for education in Idaho. Though Idaho will get $201.7 million just for education budget stabilization, that amount is for both public schools and higher education, and it’s for three years, starting with the current one.

“When you do the math, we don’t see the allocation to be sufficient to restore funding in those three fiscal years,” Paul Headlee, legislative budget analyst for public schools, told lawmakers.

Here’s the problem: There’s enough money, between the stimulus money that’s due to start arriving in Idaho within the next 40 days and the state’s special school reserve fund, to protect schools from all the cuts imposed in the state budget this year, and from all the cuts now proposed for next year. But if 2011 were another down year, there wouldn’t be enough left from either source to avoid cuts that year.

“We have no indication that 2011 will be any better - it may be worse than 2010,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Plus, he said, the state’s already grim economic outlook worsened on Monday when Boise-based Micron Technology, once the state’s largest private employer, announced plans to cut another 2,000 jobs this year.

Said Keough, “When Boise catches a cold we catch the flu in the rest of the state.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she favors using the stimulus money now to avoid school cuts and spur the economy while times are hard. “The whole idea of it is that you’re going to create jobs through money coming into the economy in the right way,” she said. “I would personally be more inclined to say, ‘Let’s make education as whole as we can in 2010.’ … My inclination is to use the stimulus funds in the spirit that they’re intended, and I think if people don’t do that, they’re less likely to work.”

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who had been hopeful that the stimulus money would allow the state to avoid any cuts in schools next year, headed off to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to seek first-hand answers. He’ll meet with Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other White House officials today.

“This is an important trip because the governor, the Legislature and I all have so many unanswered questions about the stimulus package and how it will impact public education in Idaho. I intend to get answers,” Luna said in a statement.

Legislative budget analysts on Tuesday outlined an array of ways that stimulus money will flow to education in Idaho. The budget stabilization money, intended to restore budget cuts for schools and offset the need for increased tuition at colleges, is the largest chunk. But millions more will go directly to Idaho schools for specific things like a big, two-year boost in federal funding for special education.

Many millions more would be available for competitive research grants to colleges and universities.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said he worried about things like the two-year special ed funding boost. “I just don’t want to make commitments to people that we can’t keep long-term. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

Hammond said when he served as a school principal, when federal special education funding fluctuated, successful new programs often had to be scaled back. “It’s difficult for the children,” he said. “The most important thing we can do is give them consistency, especially kids that are requiring special help. They really need consistency.”

Keough, however, said the federal government has never fully funded the special education services it’s mandated schools to provide, and if the Obama Administration intends to change that, it’d be a good thing. She said she’d like to ask the administration, “Is this the down payment on funding your mandate? Because if it is, then maybe I’d feel a little bit more comfortable in taking the money.”

The Priest River school district, for example, has a high population of special education kids and has had to shift funds from other programs to serve them, Keough said. “They have been crying out for relief since I’ve been here.”

Much of the federal stimulus money only comes to Idaho if Gov. Butch Otter applies for it, lawmakers were told. Some would flow to the state through formulas, and some would require grant applications from agencies.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I have to confess, a lot of this is clear as mud for me.”

When several legislative budget writers asked if their staff could prepare a summary of who needs to apply for which funds and when, legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith said that information simply isn’t available yet. “We’re waiting for all these federal agencies’ guidelines,” she said.

Some of the funds are contingent on Idaho assuring federal authorities that it won’t cut higher education or public school funding below 2006 levels.

Idahoans also stand to receive stimulus money for increased Pell grants for needy college students and in college tuition tax credits.


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