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Idaho schools budget to be cut 7.7 percent

Fri., March 27, 2009, 10:07 a.m.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee sets the state's largest budget, the budget for public schools, on Friday morning. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee sets the state's largest budget, the budget for public schools, on Friday morning. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE - Idaho would cut its state funding for schools next year by 7.7 percent, under an unprecedented budget set by lawmakers Friday.

The state’s allocation for schools next year would drop from this year’s $1.4185 billion, to $1.3092 billion. It marks the first time Idaho’s ever set a budget for schools that was lower than the amount schools received the previous year; the cuts include pay cuts for teachers and more.

“We know that this is temporary, and we know that we will recover from this and restore these cuts,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls. “This is an historic recession. … We’ll make it through this tough time. It’s not going to be forever.”

Total funds going to the schools - including federal stimulus money, some of which is earmarked into certain programs like special education - reflect a tiny increase for next year of 0.4 percent. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the real impact on schools will be more like a 3.4 percent cut, because $40 million in federal stimulus money will “backfill” the budget to soften some of the cuts.

The budget cuts passed on straight party-line votes, with the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s four minority Democrats opposing them, and the 16 Republicans on the panel supporting them.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, led a move to reduce an overall base salary cut for teachers to 2.63 percent, rather than 5 percent. Teachers would also see their experience-based movement on the salary schedule frozen for a year, and would lose an early retirement incentive program over the next two years, but would be spared from the equivalent of three-day furloughs.

“My goal was to minimize the hit as much as possible,” Keough said. “If the miracles occur and we all go back to work, we can come back in January 2010 … and work to restore all of this.”

School administrators would see a 5 percent cut in their base pay; classified staff would get the same 2.63 percent cut as teachers. State reimbursements to school districts for student busing costs also would be reduced by more than $4 million, and money for textbooks and supplies would be trimmed, among other cuts.

Hammond said, “I have one son and two daughters-in-law who are teachers, and I’m not real thrilled about cutting their salary.” Responded JFAC Co-Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, “Would you like to speak to my nieces and nephews?”

Keough, who noted that she’s married to a longtime Idaho teacher, said, “This isn’t easy for any of us.” She said, “We need to make sure we have enough in our reserves to avoid any cutting in 2010, which would be devastating.”

Cameron said, “Today’s a very painful day.”

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said some first-grade teachers in Idaho already have 35 kids in their classes. “We have made our schools live so close to the bone, that when we got to today and we are making these cuts, we are in essence breaking our public school system.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, spoke out against the freezing of the teacher salary grid, which will permanently cancel increases some teachers otherwise would receive for additional experience. “I think that the recommendation unfairly targets just certain teachers,” she said. “It not only piles on personnel cost reductions to the basic percent pay reduction, but it also does not distribute it fairly.”

She and the panel’s three other Democrats proposed dipping into federal stimulus money and the state’s public education stabilization fund to further soften the cuts, but were outvoted along party lines. The successful budget uses $40 million in stimulus money to soften cuts, but taps another $20 million in stimulus money to offset state spending, freeing up $20 million in state funds to be spent elsewhere.

LeFavour vehemently objected to that move, asking where that money would go. “I sure hope it isn’t roads,” she said.

Bell responded that Idaho doesn’t spend general funds on roads. The freed-up funds could be spent anywhere in the state budget.

The school budget still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they clear the joint committee. House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, both worked with the co-chairs of the joint committee to develop the budget plans.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna called the budget “a very manageable number,” and said, “It’s not a pleasant situation to find ourselves in. I think we did the responsible thing.”

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