February 26, 2010 in Idaho

Idaho weighs school budget cuts

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

JFAC Co-Chairs Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, left, and Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, right, confer during Friday morning’s meeting of the joint budget committee. The panel set a budget for the Commission on Hispanic Affairs for next year that mirrors cuts to other agencies; it didn’t address Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to phase out all state funding for that commission and six other agencies over the next four years.
(Full-size photo)


Download the budget blueprint for schools by clicking on the Documents tab above.

BOISE - As Idaho lawmakers gear up for their biggest budget decision of the year on Monday - cuts to public schools - teachers are bracing for pay cuts, Democrats are fixing for a fight and some conservatives on the Legislature’s joint budget committee are looking at cutting even more.

Two late-night meetings in the past week have resulted in unanimous agreement among four key education stakeholders on a blueprint for slashing the state’s school funding by 8.5 percent next year, to make it fit under the state’s much-lowered projections for next year’s tax revenue.

“Everybody in my opinion gave,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “All parties contributed to the overall process.”

The Idaho Education Association, representing the state’s teachers; the Idaho Association of School Administrators; the Idaho School Boards Association; and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna all participated in the meetings with lawmakers, Cameron said, and if any one of those players objected to a proposal, it was taken off the table.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “I was there - there were no votes. There were nods and groans and gnashing of teeth, but there were no votes.”

The plan goes before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Monday morning, but members can offer their own alternatives, higher or lower.

“There’s a possibility that an even lower budget may come forward, is what we’re hearing from some of the JFAC members,” said Rep. Bill Killen, the House minority caucus chairman. Killen said Democrats, who hold just four seats on the 20-member joint committee, could swing the decision. “Even though we don’t have a lot of votes, we think there’ll be a strong split,” he said.

While many JFAC members have praised the panel’s co-chairs, Bell and Cameron, for inviting input from education stakeholders, Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said by setting a budget number and then inviting the education groups to give input on how to fit within it, “It’s kind of like bringing someone in and telling them you’re going to cut off their fingers, and you’re kindly asking them for input into how.”

She said, “I just want to express some sadness about that situation.”

Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said Friday he’s undecided about whether to propose a lower budget for schools on Monday. He said he’s still concerned about state tax revenues falling even lower than the ultra-pessimistic figures lawmakers have adopted, which are far below the state’s official economic forecasts.

“Our safety nets are gone,” Bayer said. “We’re structurally unstable. … With that, I’m very concerned.”

The co-chairs’ plan includes base salary reductions for teachers and school classified staff next year of 4 percent, a pay cut for administrators of 6.5 percent, and another move to cancel $10.13 million in what otherwise would have been experience- and education-based salary boosts for teachers.

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