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Supt: Idaho ed funding headed for ‘cliff’

BOISE - Idaho’s state superintendent of schools is defending his proposal to cut $62 million from schools next year rather than dip into the state’s $114 million public education stabilization fund, saying things will only be worse a year later and that reserve fund will be needed.

Supt. Tom Luna told lawmakers this morning, “Let me give you the Thelma and Louise scenario – this is when you’re heading for a cliff, you stomp on the gas rather than pause and make adjustments.”

If Idaho were to spend all its education reserves and federal stimulus funds to avoid cuts in schools this year and next year, “In order to keep 2011 equal to 2010, we are heading towards a $150 million dollar cliff with nowhere to go,” Luna said, “and I think that’s very irresponsible.”

“I cannot imagine a budget scenario where we would try to find $150 million to cut in one fiscal year. I do not recommend it, and I think this demonstrates how irresponsible it would be for education,” he said.

Luna has presented a request to Gov. Butch Otter to use “every penny” of the federal stimulus money coming to Idaho for education, but he said this morning that’s still not enough to stave off cuts in schools next year, fiscal year 2010. He noted that just six months remain before he must start crafting a public school budget for the year after, fiscal 2011.

Luna’s proposal calls for $62 million in cuts in schools next year, and his scenario still shows a need to add $35 million from the state’s other reserve funds to balance the school budget the following year, just to keep it from dropping below the 2010 level.

“If we tried to craft a budget where we used everything at our disposal so that we do not cut education at all,” he said, “… it leaves us with nowhere to go 6 months from now when we build the 2011 budget.”

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, who heard Luna’s presentation along with other members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said he’s even more pessimistic. “Thank you for your confidence in the future actions of this committee – I don’t share that confidence,” Wood said. “I think you’re looking through rose-colored glasses, even with only cutting the $62 million.”

The Idaho Education Association, however, has taken the position that Idaho has more than enough money, between reserve funds and stimulus funds, to avoid cuts in schools next year.

“Idaho is eligible to receive more than $300 million for K-12 public schools from the stimulus package. We also have two rainy day funds totaling more than $250 million that could offset budget shortfalls,” IEA President Sherri Wood said. “Investing in our children and their education is the best way of guaranteeing a stable economy for our state and for our country. … It is imperative that we explore every avenue possible to find the financial resources needed to provide our students a quality education.”

Luna told lawmakers, “I don’t want to cut public education and I never envisioned myself in this scenario. … Obviously the economy is in a situation that none of us ever envisioned, and education cannot sit this one out.”

Idaho has never set a budget for public schools that was less than schools received the year before; even in the state’s last big economic downturn in 1983, lawmakers flat-funded the schools rather than make cuts. If Luna’s proposed cuts are enacted, it’d be a historic first.