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Luna may dip into reserves

Fri., Jan. 29, 2010

Idaho schools chief seeks to soften budget blow

BOISE – Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna on Thursday proposed dipping into state reserves for nearly $53 million to help balance next year’s school budget – a proposal that surprised and pleased lawmakers who are facing the prospect of making big cuts in education.

“I give him credit for coming up with it,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “Those are the kind of ideas we need in order to balance this budget.”

Said state Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, a former school principal, “We don’t need three years of reserves, we need one year of reserves. I quite frankly am delighted.”

The public school earnings reserve fund can’t be tapped without a vote of the state Land Board; Luna is one of five members of that board. The others – the governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state controller – all indicated Thursday they need more information before deciding.

“I do understand his position,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “He’s looking under every rock he can to find money for schools, and that’s his role as superintendent.”

Luna said his proposal would leave $30 million in the reserve fund at the end of next year instead of $90 million. Schools still would get their regular $31 million distribution from the fund next year.

“This endowment was created to benefit Idaho’s public schools,” Luna said. “If now is not the time, then when?”

The fund, set up in 1999, holds proceeds from timber sales on state school endowment land, along with investment earnings. Last year, the fund collected $17 million from timber sales and $16 million from investment earnings.

Luna also proposed drawing on two other funds in the state Department of Education – $3.3 million from the driver training account and $2.2 million from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools account.

Even with the combined $58.3 million one-time budget boost the moves would bring schools, he called for about $25 million in specific education cuts next year, plus an additional $51 million in across-the-board cuts in an array of areas if that’s also needed to make the budget balance.

All those moves combined would bring Idaho’s school funding next year up to the level Gov. Butch Otter has proposed – a 1.2 percent cut, or $14.3 million, from this year’s level in state general funds and a 7.7 percent cut overall, or $135 million.

The six specific cuts Luna would make:

•$6.1 million: Freezing experience-related teacher pay raises for a second year in a row.

•$2 million: Eliminating an early retirement incentive program.

•$1.4 million: Cutting funding for field-trip transportation.

•$1.6 million: Reducing classroom-supplies funding to $200 per teacher per year from $300.

•$5 million: Eliminating attendance protection for school districts, a funding mechanism that protects districts whose autumn enrollment falls short of projections. Luna said he’d only support the move if districts get additional flexibility to manage declining enrollment.

•$9.1 million: Cutting from technology and textbooks purchases, giving districts the flexibility to spend remaining funds on either.

Luna said he opposes cutting any deeper than that, but recognizes that another $51 million would be needed to meet the governor’s proposed budget for next year. If that must be done, he said, he recommends cutting remaining programs across the board, from state-paid salaries and benefits to transportation. A 3.74 percent across-the-board cut would add up to $51 million.

Sherri Wood, head of the Idaho Education Association, applauded Luna’s move to find new revenues, but said his proposed cuts would hurt. “I think that the cuts that we made last year hurt schools – we have fewer teachers teaching, we have fewer programs, we have fewer counselors, we have larger class sizes,” she said. “Any cuts to public schools will affect kids.”

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