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Idaho House approves school budget cuts

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, debates against the public school budget in the House on Thursday. The budget contains historic cuts in school funding. (Betsy Russell)
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, debates against the public school budget in the House on Thursday. The budget contains historic cuts in school funding. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Angst-filled Idaho state lawmakers sent a budget for public schools that contains historic cuts to Gov. Butch Otter on Thursday, saying it was the best they could do.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, told the House, “I’ve never been in such quicksand as I’ve been this year.”

The budget bill, SB 1418, earlier passed the Senate; it passed the House on Thursday on a 50-19 vote. It spends half the state’s budget in a single bill.

Federal stimulus money bailed out the state’s school budget in 2010, Bell said. “I can tell you … that’s not a good way to budget, because that one-time money comes out.” Now, she said, “There is no backfill left,” and big cuts are proposed for schools - a total of $128.5 million in cuts next year.

The budget proposes cuts in teacher and administrator salaries, and shifts money from various line items - from transportation to field trips to gifted and talented education - to discretionary funds for school districts. That way, districts can decide where to make cuts at the local level. “We will do better when we can,” Bell said. “It is not our intent to hurt anybody. … I hope I don’t ever have to do this again.”

The budget bill would give schools $1.214 billion in state general funds next year - a 1.4 percent decrease from this year in actual numbers, but effectively an 8.4 percent drop due to the removal of federal stimulus money that previously subbed in for general funds - and $1.58 billion in total funds, an overall 7.5 percent drop.

It includes a controversial provision declaring a statewide financial emergency, allowing school districts to reopen negotiated teacher contracts if needed.

House Democrats argued strongly against the bill, and attempted to force a vote to amend it through a parliamentary procedure, arguing that the budget violated legislative rules by not reflecting in its fiscal note that it would force local property tax increases.

Said Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, “Our local school districts are still going to have to find a way to function.” But the Democrats’ move was voted down on a largely party-line vote.

Bell said, “This budget’s totally about choices, and that’s why the flexibility was given to the local boards. They will have to make choices with less funding. It does not say they have to go to the voters for additional money.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “Sure it’s a local decision.” But, she said, “We don’t want to put them in a position of choosing to have a substandard education for their children rather than having to ask their patrons for some kind of extra support.”

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the Wallace school district passed a supplemental levy last week, because voters there wanted to help out their local schools even despite high unemployment and difficult economic times. “In light of the budget crisis we have down here, I think the fiscal note is fine,” Nonini said.

Nonini told the House, “It’s been the economy that has gotten us to this point - the economy is the enemy.”

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, a retired high school teacher, said, “This is a budget that is all about choices. … We are not forced into this course of action. It is a course of our own choosing if we choose to take it.”

Democrats said the state could have tapped other funds or raised additional revenue in a variety of ways to avoid such deep cuts. But Bell said the state budget is hurting just as Idahoans are hurting in the current recession.

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, told the House, “We weren’t sent here to make easy votes. … This is one of the difficult votes that we must make.”

The budget cuts state funding for salaries for teachers and classified staff by 4 percent, and for school administrators by 6.5 percent. It also saves another $10 million by eliminating raises that teachers otherwise would have gotten next year for attaining additional education or experience.

Actual salaries vary and are set by local school boards, but the state’s appropriation is most of what school districts get - especially since lawmakers in 2006 eliminated the basic local property tax levy for school operations.

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