February 27, 2009 in Idaho

Stimulus won’t stop school cuts

But Idaho’s Luna hopes funds will preclude more reductions
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Luna
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna returned from Washington, D.C., Thursday with good news and bad news for Idaho schools.

The good news: Federal funding for special education will more than double next year, and the Obama administration expects that change to be permanent.

“They made it very clear … that this is the new funding level for these programs,” Luna said, which could free up local school district dollars now spent on the federally required program.

The bad news: Luna’s hopes that the federal stimulus would allow Idaho to avoid cuts in public schools next year were dashed. He’s now calling for the same level of cuts – up to $62 million – that he proposed before the stimulus bill passed.

“What we have learned is that there is a considerable amount of money that will be coming to Idaho to stabilize our education budget,” Luna said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s going to fill a lot of the holes, but it’s not going to fill all the holes.”

After Luna proposed the $62 million in cuts, legislative budget writers endorsed not only those and an additional $47 million in cuts to schools next year through a 5 percent, across-the-board cut in personnel costs for all state agencies, a move that could mean pay cuts or layoffs. The stimulus money, Luna and lawmakers said Thursday, could stave off the additional cut.

But, he said, “We’re going to have to make some cuts in education.”

Luna said he hadn’t decided what he’ll propose to lawmakers, but he was sticking by his earlier position that Idaho could cut up to $62 million from schools next year without reducing student-teacher contact time.

Those cuts, which he outlined Jan. 29, include a cut in personnel funding equal to three contract days; cutting building maintenance by a third; freezing teacher pay increases for experience; eliminating about 40 school administrators statewide; cutting transportation funding; and cutting textbook purchases by 40 percent.

“Education is going to have to be trimmed,” he said Thursday.

Luna joined about 35 other state school chiefs for a White House meeting Wednesday afternoon with Vice President Joe Biden and federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In addition to $166 million in budget stabilization money for Idaho’s public schools over the next three years, Luna said the stimulus will provide millions more for specific programs, but it won’t arrive to offset state funding. Instead, it’ll be targeted to improve those programs.

“The call for dramatic reform and change to public education was very clear, and presented in a very bold fashion by the new secretary of education and our vice president,” said Luna, a Republican.

He said Idaho needs to hold on to its special reserve fund for public schools, which contains $114 million, for downturns that could lie ahead, rather than use it to avoid cuts next year.

He also said a bipartisan committee of legislators is working on temporary changes in state law to allow the cuts he’s proposed for schools next year to go forward.

Two bills introduced by House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, have been pulled back after an outcry over provisions that would have eliminated Idaho teachers’ contract rights and made other sweeping and permanent changes.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com.


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