January 25, 2009 in Idaho

As Idaho lawmakers consider their options, some are turning to educators for advice

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Idaho state legislators have fanned out to their districts across the state this weekend, and many are hoping to hear from local teachers and others about where cuts can best be made in the state’s public schools.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, distributed a list of millions in potential cuts to every senator on Friday, and urged them to show them to people in their districts and solicit their responses and other ideas.

The proposals range from eliminating 600 teachers statewide through attrition – and thereby bumping up class sizes – to imposing a statewide four-day school week. They include unpaid days off for teachers on days when they’d otherwise be in training or other non-teaching activities; eliminating a $5.4 million annual state appropriation for school supplies; ending an early retirement program for teachers; and cutting back state funding for everything from field trips to building maintenance.

“I don’t like any of it – that’s not the point,” Goedde said. “It’s not a case of whether you like it or not. It’s what is going to have the least impact on the education of our kids.”

The list of possible cuts was worked up by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna in several meetings with legislators from both houses and other “stakeholders,” from teachers to administrators to school board members.

“These are just ideas,” said Melissa McGrath, Luna’s spokeswoman. “They are nobody’s recommendations. They are just ideas on the table.”

Eliminating 600 teachers would save the state $37.1 million a year, Luna’s office estimated. Switching to a four-day school week statewide would save $28 million. Each day of unpaid furloughs for teachers would save about $5.3 million.

Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for next year calls for an unprecedented 5.34 percent cut in public school funding, trimming more than $75 million out of the budget. Idaho has never set a school budget that was lower than the amount schools received the year before, though in 2003 it made a midyear reduction in school funding. The closest it’s ever come was in 1983 and 1984, when public schools got the same amount of state funding two years in a row, $215 million. This year, Idaho’s public school budget is $1.4 billion in state general funds.

The list of potential cuts that’s being circulated, if totaled, adds up to $152.3 million, though few expect all those cuts to be made.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said she sent the list to three school superintendents, a teacher and a school board member, requesting feedback. Keough said she’d rather not cut schools at all, but if Idaho has to do so, she’d like to involve educators in figuring out how best to make the cuts – just as Gov. Butch Otter had his agency directors decide where to slice their own budgets when he prepared his budget proposal.

“My goal is to involve as many people in K-12 as possible in that dialogue,” Keough said. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, a retired teacher, said she, too, will be seeking opinions from local educators and others when she’s back home in her district this weekend. “From talking to teachers as much as I have, I think the last thing they would want is to do a reduction in force and increase class size,” she said.

Overall, she’s worried that Idaho will change long-standing policies – like the law that requires teachers to be paid no less than they were the year before – because of a short-term problem. “The danger is after the economy turns around, you won’t be able to get it back,” she said.

Idaho lawmakers will begin hearings on education budgets this week.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com. For more news from Boise go to www.spokesman.com/boise.


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