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Education budget set

Panel’s 7.5 percent cut expected, but emergency clause added

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers have set a public schools budget 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 on Wednesday 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 districts 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 provision, but it passed.

Said state 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 anymore. … We keep changing the rules of the game on them, and it’s not a game, it’s their life.”

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

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

The budget calls for base 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.

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.

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

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.