March 28, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho legislators slice 7.7 percent of school funding

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

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 would drop from this year’s $1.4 billion to $1.3 billion. It marks the first time Idaho has set a schools budget lower than the previous year’s. The cuts include pay cuts for teachers.

“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.”

Total school funding – including federal stimulus money, some of which is earmarked for programs such as special education – would reflect an increase 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.

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

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, led a move to reduce a base salary cut for teachers to about 2.6 percent, rather than 5 percent. Teachers would also see their experience-based progression on the salary schedule frozen for a year, and they would lose an early retirement incentive program over the next two years. They’d be spared from the equivalent of additional 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 2.6 percent cut as teachers. State reimbursements to school districts for student busing costs would be reduced by more than $4 million, and money for textbooks and supplies would be trimmed.

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

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,” she said.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, spoke out against the freezing of the teacher salary grid, which will permanently cancel increases some teachers would have received for additional experience. “I think that the recommendation unfairly targets just certain teachers,” she said.

She and the panel’s other three Democrats proposed dipping into federal stimulus money and the state’s public education stabilization fund to further soften the cuts, but they were outvoted. The budget set Friday 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 objected to that move, asking where that money would go. “I sure hope it isn’t roads,” she said.

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

The schools budget still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change after clearing the joint committee. House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, worked with the joint committee leaders to develop the budget.

State Superintendent 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.”

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com. For more news from Boise go to www.spokesman.com/boise.


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