BOISE – As Idaho’s Legislature moves closer to cutting public schools spending for the first time, legislation passed the House unanimously on Tuesday to allow some temporary cuts in cases of financial emergency.
Two other bills, trimming teacher pay and permanently cutting state funding for local districts’ student busing costs, are headed for a more rancorous debate in the House as soon as today.
“It would’ve been nice to have consensus, but I think we all knew we weren’t going to have that,” said House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the House Education Committee chairman and sponsor of all three bills.
The bill that passed, House Bill 252, requires consultation with teachers unions and allows various state laws – including one requiring teachers to be paid at least as much as the year before – to be suspended in cases of financial emergencies. An array of Idaho education groups, including the statewide teachers union, endorsed the bill.
The Idaho Education Association opposes the pay cut and busing bills, however, as do several other education groups.
Nonini said he sees no way to avoid cuts to schools, though never before has Idaho set a budget for public schools that gave them less than they got the year before. Even in the state’s last big recession, in 1983, schools, which take up roughly half the state’s budget, were flat-funded rather than cut.
“We have never seen times like this,” Nonini said. “They’re unprecedented, and unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.”
Meanwhile, teachers across the state have begun wearing Band-Aids on lapels and wrists in protest. Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, said, “No Band-Aids can cover the damage from cuts to our schools.”
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who serves on the Legislature’s joint budget committee, was among a handful of lawmakers who plastered Band-Aids on their cheeks last Thursday during a high-profile debate in the House about gas taxes.
“I put it on because I’m concerned about the direction I see us potentially taking with respect to funding education,” she said. “I think it’s very important.”
She took the Band-Aid off, however, “when Rep. (Wendy) Jaquet told me I looked really silly.”
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has called for cutting up to $62 million from Idaho’s public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, next year, while Gov. Butch Otter has called for cutting about $110 million. Lawmakers are likely to settle on a figure somewhere between the two.
Ringo said she and other minority Democrats on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will propose a budget on Friday that protects schools from cuts by dipping into state reserve funds and federal stimulus money. But, she said, “I suspect it won’t pass – you know how the numbers are.”
Democrats hold just four seats on the 20-member joint budget committee.
Nonini said of schools, “We’re not going to be able to hold ’em harmless – there’s just not enough money there.”
Other state agencies took 6 percent budget cuts already this year, he noted, and schools were protected from those. “We all know how important education is, but we also have to deal with all the other state employees,” he said. “Education has got to do its part also, and share in this pain.”