BOISE – Idaho’s schools chief is defending his plan to cut $62 million from public schools next year rather than dip into a $114 million stabilization fund, saying things will only be worse a year later and that the money in the reserve fund will be needed even more.
Superintendent of Public Schools Tom Luna told lawmakers Thursday, “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.”
Luna is urging Gov. Butch Otter to “take every penny” of the federal stimulus money for education, but said it still won’t stave off the need for cuts in schools – a first for Idaho.
“I cannot imagine a budget scenario where we would try to find $150 million to cut in one fiscal year,” Luna said. “I do not recommend it, and I think this demonstrates how irresponsible it would be for education.”
Some disputed Luna’s $150 million shortfall figure.
“We still believe that there are many ways to come out of this without cutting public schools,” said Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association. “The only question is do we have the political will to do that.”
She advocated using stimulus funds and the state’s various reserve funds to avoid cuts in schools, saying investing in education will help the economy. “It is imperative that we explore every avenue possible to find the financial resources needed to provide our students a quality education,” she said.
But others were even more pessimistic than Luna.
State Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, who heard Luna’s presentation Thursday along with other members of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, told Luna, “I think you’re looking through rose-colored glasses, even with only cutting the $62 million.”
Luna said, “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.
House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “In my career here in the Legislature, we’ve never had a year like this, either – I think it’s something that we have to do.”
Luna’s proposal calls for $62 million in cuts in school funding 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 six months from now when we build the 2011 budget.”
House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said a bipartisan group of legislators has been meeting for three weeks to craft consensus legislation on how to temporarily suspend various state laws to allow the school cuts. Nonini’s first proposal on that prompted an outcry, in part because it proposed permanently eliminating Idaho teachers’ continuing contract rights.
Nonini said he’s sat in on the group’s meetings, which are being chaired by state Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, who has mediation experience. They’ve gone on for hours, several times a week for the past three weeks. “Everyone’s willing to spend the time it takes to try to reach some common ground,” Nonini said. “We’re hoping they can complete their work early next week.”