May 29, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho school districts declaring emergencies

Move lets them open contracts, reduce teachers’ paychecks
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

New law

The financial emergency law passed during Idaho’s last legislative session as lawmakers set a budget for schools for next year that’s 7.7 percent down in state general funds.

In total funds, that’s a 0.4 percent increase, but that includes federal economic stimulus money that goes to certain programs and certain districts.

BOISE – At least a dozen Idaho school districts have declared financial emergencies under a new state law, and more are considering the move as they face their first-ever cut in state funding next year.

The law lets a school district reopen teacher contracts to negotiate adjustments in pay, hours or contract length. It allows temporary suspension of a state law that requires teachers to be paid at least what they were the previous year.

West Bonner and Boundary County school districts have made the declarations; Coeur d’Alene and Rathdrum schools are considering doing so.

“There’s no money, so what can you do?” asked Ryan Kerby, superintendent of the New Plymouth School District in southwestern Idaho.

In Bonner County, West Bonner Schools Superintendent Mike McGuire said he’s cut a quarter-million dollars from next year’s budget, but the cut hasn’t made up the shortfall.

“We aren’t going to have a high school assistant principal next year in a high school of 400-plus students – that wasn’t a luxury,” he said. “We’ve made, I think, some pretty serious reductions throughout the district. We just don’t have anyplace else to look.”

Tom Taggart, business manager for the Lakeland School District in Rathdrum, said, “There’s a lot of potential risks with moving ahead with it, but it’s one of the few tools we have.”

The financial emergency law passed as state legislators set a budget for schools for next year that’s 7.7 percent down in state general funds. In total funds, it’s a 0.4 percent increase, including targeted federal stimulus money.

“The teachers out there are scared,” said Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association.

In Coeur d’Alene, Superintendent Hazel Baumann said the district considered declaring a financial emergency.

“We even took some of the initial first steps,” she said. Now, however, “we are working collaboratively with our (teachers) association. … If we come up with a solution that would require us declaring a financial emergency, we would prefer to do it collaboratively.”

Kerby, in New Plymouth, is one of the few superintendents in the state whose district has completed the process. The result: Every employee in the district, “from aide to teacher to cook to custodian to secretary to superintendent,” will take three furlough days, he said. That will save the small district $75,000, and, combined with the federal stimulus money the district stands to receive, fill the district’s budget gap. The move couldn’t have been made without the emergency declaration.

It’s tougher for districts like Boundary County, which went to a four-day school week several years ago. Superintendent Don Bartling said he’s looking at nearly a half-million-dollar drop in state funding next year, a figure that swelled in part because the district expects to lose about 43 students. The district already has cut 4.75 full-time teachers from its staff of about 100. “It’ll result in larger classes,” he said.

West Bonner County schools are running a supplemental levy election Tuesday to ask residents to ante up to save sports and extracurricular activities, and to keep a five-day school week rather than cutting back to four days.

If the $478,719 tax levy fails, those things would have to go, McGuire said. Even if the levy passes, the district still will need to make cuts in teacher pay or workdays to balance its budget. “The board is not looking forward to doing this, and certainly the teachers association is not either,” McGuire said.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has cautioned districts that the law likely wouldn’t allow for emergencies to be declared two years in a row, unless there are further cuts in state funding.

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said she’s been hearing from school trustees across the state. “They’re worried,” she said. “Some of them are holding tight. They’re hoping the economy turns, but if it doesn’t, they want to be able to declare that emergency in the following year.”

Baumann said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the Coeur d’Alene district’s finances. “The stimulus money is definitely at least mitigating some of the panic,” she said.

Taggart said Lakeland schools, while likely to declare a financial emergency, are headed toward a budget that’s “probably not as dire as everybody thinks it will be.”

But he cautioned that federal stimulus money will be gone in two years. “Things have to start turning around late this year, early next year, or the third year down the road is really going to be a mess,” he said.

Wood, of the Idaho Education Association, said she’s glad the Legislature allowed districts some flexibility to cope with the cuts. But, she said, “I think it’s going to be devastating to some places.

“We’re going to start to see a real discrepancy in what is being provided to our kids in the state in different areas, which is real frightening to me, because I believe every child should have an equal opportunity,” she said.

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