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Idaho lawmakers back school funding cuts

Wed., March 3, 2010, 1 p.m.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna talks to reporters after JFAC set a budget for public schools on Wednesday that includes big cuts next year. Luna said the budget will be "very, very difficult" for schools. (Betsy Russell)
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, right, consoles Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, after a somber budget-setting session Wednesday morning for public schools, which will see deep cuts next year. At left is Paul Headlee, the legislative budget analyst for public schools. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho lawmakers have set a budget for public schools for next year that slashes 7.5 percent overall - and effectively cuts state funding for schools 8.4 percent - while cutting pay for all school employees and trimming an array of education initiatives.

“There’s plenty for all of us to dislike,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.

The budget set by the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning matches a blueprint developed by a group of lawmakers and education stakeholders over the past few weeks - with one exception. At the last minute, on a 12-7 vote, the committee tacked on an extra clause to declare a financial emergency for every Idaho school district next year, enabling them to reopen negotiated teacher contracts and change pay, benefits or contract length.

Three Republicans - Cameron and Sens. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, and Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, joined with the committee’s four Democrats to oppose the motion, but it passed.

Said Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, “It basically renders null and void contract salary provisions and the length of the contracts - in other words, teachers just won’t have contracts across our state any more. … We keep changing the rules of the game on them, and it’s not a game, it’s their life.”

The surprise move left the Idaho Education Association’s president, Sherri Wood, in tears after the JFAC meeting. The move, she said, was “wrong.”

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said he was surprised by the move, and didn’t know about it before this morning’s meeting. He was among the group of education stakeholders who earlier agreed to the budget plan, which didn’t include that clause.

Luna said the budget will be “very, very difficult” for Idaho schools. “I don’t think any of us ever thought … that we would be dealing with this, that two years in a row we would be cutting education,” he said. “It’s a very difficult situation, but it’s all being driven by the economy. … I tell folks that there is a brighter day that’s not far off, and we will get through this.”

Minority Democrats on the panel offered an alternative, to add an extra $37.2 million to the school budget. They called for capturing that extra money by delaying implementation of a grocery tax credit increase, putting off election consolidation, delaying an insurance premium tax reduction and tapping $3 million from the general fund for additional tax auditors who would bring in $20 million more in already-due taxes next year, for a net increase of $17 million from that move.

“We’re offering ideas,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. Said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, “We are basically balancing our state budget on the backs of our kids, and that is wrong.”

But the move failed on a party-line vote, with only the four Democrats on the joint committee supporting it.

Hammond, a former longtime school principal, spoke emotionally about the proposal. “I’m not comfortable with this budget either. I don’t like it,” he said. “But I truly don’t see an alternative. As I return home each weekend and I talk to those businesses who have already laid off 30, 40 percent of their staff and are trying to stay alive, they beg me, ‘Don’t tax me any more, don’t raise my taxes.’ … So please don’t throw at me that we haven’t considered that alternative - we have.”

The budget still needs approval from the full House and Senate and the governor’s signature to take effect, but budgets rarely are changed after they’re set by the joint committee. No school budget has been defeated in the House or Senate in at least the past 25 years.

The budget calls for pay cuts for teachers and classified employees of school districts next year of 4 percent, 6.5 percent pay cuts for administrators, and canceling $10.13 million in what otherwise would have been raises earned by educators for additional education or experience.

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