March 2, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho bill increasing class sizes hits standstill

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – The centerpiece of Idaho’s controversial school reform plan may be dead, senators indicated late Tuesday, even as separate bills on teacher contracts and pay move through hearings in the House.

The main bill, SB 1113, was sent back to the Senate Education Committee last week after earlier squeaking through it on a 5-4 vote; on Tuesday, committee members said it’s not coming back to the full floor.

The measure sought to raise Idaho’s class sizes in grades 4-12 and eliminate 770 teaching jobs in the next two years, to generate millions in savings that would be funneled into technology boosts, including laptop computers for every high school student and a teacher performance-pay plan.

“I don’t see any effort to move 1113 forward at this point,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. Instead, the committee may work on legislation to establish a task force to examine issues raised by the bill and report back next year.

State Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, who had voted in favor of the measure, said, “Hopefully the process can be established so that when the task force is done, the stakeholders feel like they did have some significant impact on the outcome.”

The reform package generated an unprecedented outpouring of public opposition, from thousands of calls and e-mails to lawmakers, to huge turnouts at public hearings, to rallies and demonstrations across the state. On Monday, hundreds of high school students walked out of class around the state to protest the plan.

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna said late Tuesday that he’s still hoping some version of SB 1113 will pass, but he said, “There’s a reason these were put in three separate bills. I think they’re all three necessary to do the kinds of reform that we need in education, but the two bills that we’ve passed are monumental.”

The two other bills in the package, SB 1108 and SB 1110, both narrowly passed the Senate last week after a tense, five-hour debate; both are now pending in the House, where they’re expected to pass.

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who held hearings on both those bills Tuesday that ran for nearly four hours, said, “I think 1108 has merit on its own, if it is the only thing that’s brought forward, in trying to untie the hands of school districts.”

That measure removes most of teachers’ existing collective bargaining rights. It also removes a portion of the formula that protects a school district’s funding when enrollment swings sharply from one year to the next, giving the district 99 percent of the state funding it received the previous year. Under SB 1108, that would be replaced by severance payments to teachers laid off in the fall due to drop in enrollment.

The third bill, SB 1110, establishes a performance-pay plan for teachers that would cost the state $38 million in its first year, 2013, and $51.3 million in each year after that. The class-size increases were supposed to generate the savings to pay for it.

But Nonini said his committee may choose to pass the bill anyway. “We could work on it next year and see how we … fund it in 2013,” he said.

Testimony at Tuesday’s hearing ran 6-1 against SB 1108 and SB 1110, but Nonini said he didn’t hear anything to alter his support for the two bills. The hearing will continue this morning, with dozens more people signed up to testify. “I think there’s credibility in us going through this process,” Nonini said. “I think we need to let them have their say, whether it changes our mind or not.”

Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said late Tuesday, “These discussions are ongoing.” If just the two bills now in the House pass, she said, “It would mean that we found a little bit of cost savings in SB 1108, but the major issue facing us today with our budget, which is the funding cliff, has not been addressed.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Education Committee members began turning their attention to how Idaho will fund schools next year, with a potential shortfall of up to $62 million. They mulled relaxing the state’s “use it or lose it” funding rule, which requires certain levels of staffing at school districts as a condition of state funding.

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, told the senators, “We’ve said from the beginning the big thing for the trustees is flexibility at the local school district level to let them figure this out on their own.”

Goedde said, “The bottom line is if we don’t do anything $62 million gets cut out of the budget, and we could very well put that in local trustees’ laps to deal with as they see fit.”

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