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House panel OKs bills trimming teacher bargaining rights, imposing merit pay

Fri., March 4, 2011, midnight

BOISE – Controversial bills to trim Idaho teachers’ collective bargaining rights and impose a merit pay plan cleared the House Education Committee on Thursday and headed to the full House for final passage.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the committee chairman, hailed both bills, saying he’d been for them “from the get-go.”

The committee held 15 hours of hearings over the past three days, and heard testimony that was overwhelmingly against the bills. Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood told the panel the proposals are “nothing short of the most mean-spirited and egregious attacks on teachers that Idaho has ever seen,” and said the move “clearly signals to them they are not valued.”

But state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who proposed the bills, told the lawmakers, “Everyone recognizes that there are some teachers that are not effective in the classroom, and we need to be able to deal with that more efficiently and more effectively, and that’s what these bills focus on.” He said, “We know what works. The question is do we have the will to do it.”

SB 1108, which passed on a 13-5 vote, would remove most existing collective bargaining rights from Idaho teachers; eliminate the teacher early retirement incentive program; and repeal a law that protects school districts from sharp drops in state funding when enrollment drops from one year to the next, replacing it with severance payments to teachers laid off in the fall. That funding provision drew opposition even from some who backed the bill, including the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators.

Republicans Tom Trail, of Moscow, and Jeff Nesset, of Lewiston, and the panel’s three Democrats voted against the bill, which already passed the Senate. If it passes the House, as expected, it goes to Gov. Butch Otter, who joined Luna in proposing the three-bill school reform plan in January and whose aides said this week that it’s his top legislative priority.

The second bill, SB 1110, sets up a teacher performance pay plan that would cost the state $38 million in its first year, 2013, and $51.3 million in each year thereafter. It, too, passed on the same 13-5 vote.

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, objected that the bill sets up a program with no funding source. “It’s irresponsible, it’s not the way this Legislature generally acts,” he said. “We have such severe deficits we can’t even meet our basic needs, not only in the education field but in various other areas of government.”

Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, countered, “This is some of the most effective dollars that we can spend.”

The measure was supposed to be funded by SB 1113, the third bill in the reform package, which would raise Idaho’s class sizes in grades 4-12 and eliminate 770 teaching jobs in the next two years. But that measure stalled in a Senate committee, where it remains.

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