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Panel leaders say Idaho schools cuts needed next year

THURSDAY, FEB. 26, 2009

BOISE – The chairmen of Idaho’s House and Senate education committees – both of whom are Coeur d’Alene Republicans – called Wednesday for cuts in the state’s public schools budget next year to avoid potentially deeper cuts a year later.

“We think a positive move forward would be to try to spread that out, possibly looking at some cuts in the 2010 budget,” state Rep. Bob Nonini told the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

State Sen. John Goedde said, “I would rather see small cuts in 2010 and small cuts in 2011 than nothing in 2010 and potentially $150 million in cuts in 2011 – $150 million is 10 percent of the school budget.”

The chairmen met Wednesday with legislative budget writers, who will set budgets for all state agencies after they receive more information about federal stimulus money and recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter on how to use it.

Nonini said a $150 million shortfall for schools could occur in fiscal year 2011 if revenues remain flat, and all the state’s stimulus money and school reserve funds are spent to prop up this year’s and next year’s school budgets. If revenues continue to fall, the 2011 shortfall could be even higher, he said.

Both chairmen said they agree with Superintendent Tom Luna that through any budget cuts, Idaho must try to maintain students’ contact time with teachers. “The students don’t get a second chance – they’re moving through the system,” Nonini said.

Luna was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to meet with federal officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to get more information about the stimulus funding. He plans to report on the results today.

Nonini and Goedde said the stimulus includes specific funding for a student data system that Idaho needs, and they recommended taking advantage of that funding. They also said the stimulus could help fund the Idaho Education Network, a statewide effort to extend broadband connections to schools.

Nonini also pointed to funding meant to avert tuition and fee increases at state colleges and universities. “We need to do everything we can to make sure that the universities aren’t raising fees to where we get to the point of diminishing returns” and fewer students are able to attend, he said.

Goedde said his committee reviewed $62 million in proposed budget cuts for public schools that Luna outlined earlier – before the stimulus bill passed – and had concerns about one, a plan to eliminate an early retirement incentive for teachers to save $4 million. It might actually cost the state up to $9 million, he said, when experienced teachers opt not to retire and be replaced by lower-paid newer teachers.

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