BOISE – Idaho’s top education official Thursday proposed $62 million in funding cuts for public schools next year, slicing into everything from teacher pay to administration to building maintenance.
”Let me make it clear – I do not want to cut education funding,” Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told state lawmakers. “Frankly, in my opinion, all these ideas are bad ideas, because they cut education. But the economic reality is that we have to choose some of these ideas.”
Luna said his proposals – which also call for dipping into the state’s public school reserve fund for $17 million – would preserve teacher-student class time, while still meeting the 5.34 percent budget reduction Gov. Butch Otter has recommended for next year, which adds up to more than $75 million.
“We all know the classroom is where education happens,” Luna said. “We must work to keep student achievement moving forward despite these challenges, because our students only get one chance at an education.”
State lawmakers were mostly receptive to Luna’s proposals. Even local school officials said they don’t see any way to avoid some cuts.
“I don’t know if I agree with all of them until I dig in and see what the ramifications are, but I know they’re necessary,” said Hazel Bauman, superintendent of the Coeur d’Alene School District. “It’s just a tough time for everybody. We’ve got to stay strong and stay united.”
Luna proposed 10 cuts in the school budget. The largest would trim $20 million from building maintenance, cutting it by a third; $15 million from salaries, equal to three days pay for teachers, administrators and other staff; $6 million by calling a one-year halt to automatic raises teachers receive for gaining more experience; $4 million from administration, eliminating about 40 school administrators statewide; and $4 million by eliminating an early-retirement incentive program for teachers.
State funds for textbook purchases would be cut by 40 percent; and funding for supplies and transportation would be cut back.
Luna said he hopes all the cuts won’t be necessary. “I hope during the coming weeks we can work together to find ways to reduce the cuts I’ve laid out,” he told the Legislature’s joint budget committee.
But some lawmakers said they’re afraid state tax revenues will fall further, requiring even deeper cuts.
State Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, commended Luna for focusing on preserving the time that teachers spend with students. In his nearly 20 years as an elementary school principal, Hammond said, he concluded, “The thing that I would need more than anything else is the people that are working for me. I could live without new textbooks for a year, I could live without the computer purchases.”
Hammond said he also thought it would be preferable for workers to take a pay cut than have layoffs. Luna said his proposal allows for that.
Districts could choose to cut everyone’s pay; furlough teachers on in-service days or other days they aren’t in the classroom with students; or eliminate positions. Districts also would have options for the administrative funding cuts; instead of eliminating positions, they could choose pay cuts.
State Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, Luna if he had looked into what would happen if Idaho needed to drain its public school reserve fund just to get through the rest of this year. Though he’s proposing using $17 million from the fund next year, he wants to keep an amount equal to at least 3 percent of the school budget on reserve.
Luna said his crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s. “I think those are decisions we’ll have to look at and weigh once we have more information,” he said.
Wayne Hammon, budget chief for Gov. Butch Otter, said the Otter Administration is closely watching the federal economic stimulus legislation. “We’ve been following it very closely, and there’s a lot of education money in both versions of the bill,” he said. Otter and Luna have been in close contact, Hammon said, to try to make sure proposed cuts for schools are structured in such a way that they could be reversed if sufficient stimulus money shows up from the federal government. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told Luna he’s got a “nagging feeling” that Idaho’s state tax revenues still will fall further this year. “The $80 million hole may actually be a $130 million hole,” he said. “My gut tells me that things are worse. … If they are, then what? There’s only so many of these things we can do without affecting the education of our children.”
Luna responded, “I have not come up yet with a list of terrible ideas – just bad ideas. There is a point where if we cut education too far, that it will have a severe impact on student achievement.”
Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to start setting budgets until Feb. 23, and they may not get to the school budget until early March.