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Hundreds pack Idaho school hearing

Hundreds of Idahoans arrive for a the state's first-ever public hearing on public school funding on Friday morning. (Betsy Russell)
Hundreds of Idahoans arrive for a the state's first-ever public hearing on public school funding on Friday morning. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — With the flood gates open, hundreds of teachers and parents flocked to the Idaho Capitol on Friday when given the chance to unload their burdens to lawmakers who craft the state budget.

They told of a principal who couldn’t afford desks for his students and teachers who shop for their own supplies after funding for public education was cut by more than $128 million this year. They named kids, some of them their own, who struggle with learning disabilities and had only struggled further amid the cuts.

While one lauded teachers who are overworked and underpaid, another condemned educators who threatened to sue over contract negotiations to lower their pay and help balance school district budgets.

There was standing room only as lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held their first public hearing in state history, taking testimony on public schools. Hundreds of teachers and parents filled the auditorium, with overflow crowds filling nearby hearing rooms.

Nearly 150 people signed up to testify, and one by one, they bemoaned the budget cuts and weighed in on a new plan to overhaul education with more technology in the classroom and fewer teachers.

Lauren Peters sobbed while telling lawmakers how the loss of funding had devastated her south-central Idaho community, where she is volunteering at the local high school to keep the library open.

“Our drama, music classes are entirely gone,” said Peters, who lives in Hansen and has four teenage children. “This year my son will graduate, and for the first time for as long as anyone can remember, no high school band will play pomp and circumstance as he makes his way to the stage.”

A bulk of the testimony focused on a package of reforms public schools chief Tom Luna unveiled last week to restructure how Idaho’s scarce education dollars are spent.

The state would provide high school students with laptops while expanding online learning and technology in the classroom, under the plan. Idaho would also tie some teacher pay to merit and awards bonuses to those who take on hard-to-fill positions and leadership roles, but require educators to forgo coveted job security.

The state would pay for the plan mostly by increasing the ratio of students-per-class from 18.2 to 19.8 during the next two years, saving about $100 million annually. Idaho would shed about 770 teaching jobs as class sizes increase and more courses are taught online.

The reforms championed by Luna and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter found plenty of critics and supporters during the four-hour hearing. The opposition started at the sign-in table, where 67-year-old grandmother Nancy Berto held a bright orange sign that read: “Stop the Luna-cy.”

Karen Mahoney, a parent from Eagle who mocked the proposal to arm students with laptops and pleaded with lawmakers to instead send that money to her son’s school, where “it is desperately needed.”

“My eighth-grade student is thrilled with the proposal to get a new laptop,” Mahoney said. “It will be so much easier to update his Facebook account and check out YouTube videos rather than having to ask my permission to use the family computer.”

While many parents and teachers decried the plan, several supporters echoed key phrases Luna has used to convince lawmakers they have no choice. Their mantra: Lawmakers can continue cuts to public education, or they can overhaul how Idaho’s limited resources are spent to raise student achievement.

The reforms could prove appealing to some budget-weary lawmakers, who cut total spending on public schools for the first time in history this year and allowed school districts to negotiate lower pay for teachers as tax revenues lagged and the statewide unemployment rate hovered close to 10 percent.

Maria Nate, a parent from Rexburg in eastern Idaho, urged lawmakers to consider Luna’s “forward thinking” plan. Colby Gull, superintendent of the Challis School District, said it was the adults, not the kids, who were uncomfortable with technological gains.

“As educators, we need to allow kids to learn in an environment where they can reach their full potential and not hold them back because of our discomforts,” Gull said.