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Idaho leaders tap reserves to add money for schools

Thu., Feb. 11, 2010

BOISE – After a long and fierce debate, Idaho’s top five elected officials voted 3-2 on Wednesday to give public schools an extra $22 million from state reserves next year – less than half the amount the state schools superintendent had sought.

Superintendent Tom Luna, who paused dramatically before casting the deciding vote, said afterward, “I wasn’t going to walk out of here with nothing. … With the kind of cuts we’re looking at, any money that we find is going to be beneficial.”

The failure to secure the entire request, however, “is going to mean even deeper cuts in salaries, in the math initiative, in transportation, in all those programs,” he said.

Luna sought the money from the state’s public school earnings reserve fund, which already is scheduled to pay schools about $31 million next year. Luna said it contains three years of such payments and could afford the extra payment on top of that to help offset much larger cuts in state funding that loom for schools next year.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa proposed the compromise of a smaller transfer, saying his intention is that the reserve fund continue to hold two years of school payments to protect future students. Gov. Butch Otter and Luna voted for Ysursa’s proposal; Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and state Controller Donna Jones opposed the move.

Luna said the $52.8 million he sought was the equivalent of 1,000 teaching jobs or 10 days of school. “We as trustees have the opportunity to throw public schools a lifeline,” he said.

But Wasden warned that the board has a duty to manage the state endowment for the maximum long-term gain for schools – not for short-term situations. He called for delaying any action until the state’s experts could provide a detailed study of its possible long-term impacts – a move that could take months.

Luna has estimated that Idaho’s schools face a $135 million drop in total funding next year, but said recent suggestions that state revenue will fall further mean the cuts to schools could be as high as $160 million. If it’s that high, the $22 million infusion from the endowment would drop the shortfall to $138 million.

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