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Idaho schools plan waiver requests

H1N1 hits hard; funding tied to attendance

BOISE – Idaho education officials are bracing for a raft of waiver requests from school districts that have seen student attendance suffer from the flu and don’t want the drop to hurt their state funding.

Idaho bases its school funding for the first half of the year on average daily attendance for the first seven weeks of school – when the H1N1 flu has dramatically reduced attendance in many districts.

Washington school officials said funding isn’t affected by the flu because it’s based on enrollment, rather than attendance.

“We had a couple schools that had up to 25 and 30 percent absentee,” said Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Hazel Bauman. Attendance has rebounded, she said, but “we will be submitting a request for a waiver.”

Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Idaho state Department of Education, said such waiver requests normally are rare. The department typically receives only about one a year, usually driven by an early snow day or a similarly unusual event. This year, however, it’s already received one request, from the South Lemhi School District in eastern Idaho, and it’s heard from many more that have requests in the works.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls asking about it,” McGrath said. “We know that there have been more absent than usual at this time of year because of H1N1.”

A district’s funding won’t be impacted if its local school board passes a resolution, then sends information to the state on which schools were affected and on which dates. The board for the state’s largest school district, Meridian, was scheduled to pass such a resolution last night.

Eric Exline, Meridian school district spokesman, said absenteeism in the district has been running at 14.5 percent, up from the usual 4.5 percent, and one school has hit 17 percent.

Bauman said in Coeur d’Alene, officials considered a possible school closure after Winton Elementary School absentee rates hit 30 percent for two days the week before last. Attendance there has picked back up, she said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that at least for now, we’re seeing a respite,” Bauman said. A delay in school-based vaccination clinics, however, “is obviously going to allow for more infections to occur,” she said.

Bauman said the issue highlights a problem with Idaho’s funding system. “One thing I would support is a look at funding being based on enrollment vs. attendance,” she said. Many of Idaho school districts’ costs – such as staff contracts and utilities – are fixed, regardless of attendance, she said.

Staff writer Jody Lawrence-Turner contributed to this report.

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