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Idaho sets school budget with teacher-pay cuts

Democrats on JFAC, including Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, right, tried to add $10 million to the public school budget on Monday morning, but the move failed on a 6-14 vote. (Betsy Russell)
Democrats on JFAC, including Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, right, tried to add $10 million to the public school budget on Monday morning, but the move failed on a 6-14 vote. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho’s public schools would see a $47 million funding cut next year, under a budget set by lawmakers today - considerably less than the $62 million cut lawmakers had been pondering, but still a big hit to already hard-hit schools that would see state funding drop for all school employees’ salaries.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee set the budget in a series of divided, but lopsided votes, with all four of the panel’s Democrats opposing each piece of the budget, and several committee Republicans joining them on some of its most important pieces. Among them: Teacher-pay cuts, and a 10 percent cut in discretionary funds per classroom to school districts, which already saw those funds cut 14.4 percent this year.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who voted against both, said, “I think that there was money that could have been added from various sources that we left laying on the table.” She said, “We’re going to see our long-term teachers leave and retire, and we’re going to see a lot fewer new teachers taking up the profession.”

The budget still must pass the House and Senate and receive the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely are changed after they’re set by the joint committee. It totals $1.224 billion in state general funds, which is $9.3 million more than this year’s budget - but $1.6 billion in total funds, a drop from this year’s level of close to 3 percent.

It includes all the changes to Idaho’s school funding system envisioned in three reform bills pushed by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, including cutting into salary funds to pay for new technology investments.

“Our school districts are going to be faced with new unfunded mandates for unnecessary technology,” Broadsword said. “It just makes a bad situation worse.”

She worried that the budget will result in property tax increases, as strapped school districts turn to local voters for bailouts through supplemental levies. One’s already passed in her county, Bonner County, for $13.5 million.

Said Broadsword, “I represent some of the poorest parts of the state.”

The budget has $15 million more in it than lawmakers had been targeting all session, thanks to additional funds picked up at the state Tax Commission by adding new auditors to collect already-due but unpaid taxes. That boosts the general-fund portion of the budget for schools for next year to an increase of 0.8 percent, rather than an anticipated $6 million cut.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who voted for all pieces of the budget, said, “I was involved behind the scenes in getting the extra money into the budget and some of the other parts, so that was my part of the deal. I would’ve felt better about it if the ‘Three Pillars’ hadn’t passed, because I truly believe these bills will hurt school districts and local taxpayers, and I do believe we are trading laptops for teachers.”

The “Three Pillars” is the nickname Luna’s given the components of his school reform plan, which he also calls “Students Come First.”

Luna said of the newly set budget, “It’s considerably better than what we were anticipating and talking about before the Legislature came to town, but it’s still the third year in a row where schools are going to receive less money.”

The budget calls for a 1.87 percent pay cut for teachers, administrators and classified staff in the base salaries funded by the state. Part of that comes from a $14.8 million reduction in salary funds to cover technology investments required under Luna’s third school reform bill, SB 1184, and the rest from an additional $13.3 million cut designed to help balance the budget and meet the bottom line. The overall budget is $12 million below the governor’s recommendation for public schools for next year.

Among other North Idaho members of JFAC, Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, voted in favor of the budget, while Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, opposed it.

Ringo led a move by Democrats to tap an unused balance in a school facilities fund to funnel $10 million more into discretionary funds for school districts, but the move fell short on a 6-14 vote. It got Broadsword’s support, though.

Ringo said, “I believe with the onus that we’re putting on the school districts with requirements for technology and the decrease in money for salary-based apportionment, it’s important that we give them this shot in the arm for discretionary funds, which is still a significant decrease from discretionary funds in 2011.”

Broadsword said she agreed because “our school districts have been handed a number of new unfunded mandates.”

In addition to the 1.87 percent cut in base salaries, the budget permanently eliminates the $2,000 payment each year for five years that teachers previously got for attaining master teacher certification; that was suspended this year, and will be removed permanently in next year’s budget. That means about 55 of Idaho’s best teachers who received the money in 2010 won’t get the rest of those bonuses.

The hope is that a new pay-for-performance plan, enacted as part of Luna’s reforms, that contains different bonuses to start in 2013 will partly offset that loss in the future, though it’ll be distributed on a different basis.

The budget also includes permanently repealing the early retirement incentive program for teachers, as required by this year’s education reform bills, and $1.6 million to move Idaho’s minimum teacher salary back up to its previous level of $30,000 from the current $29,655.

This year’s school budget, which saw an unprecedented $128.5 million cut in overall funds, included $35 million in one-time money, including an extra payment from the state endowment, that helped prop up the total. That money’s not replaced in next year’s budget, and after accounting for student enrollment growth, another $12 million in state general funds is sliced out of the budget due to the state’s budget crunch.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chair, said the result is a $47 million cut for schools next year in real terms. “That’s what the schools will feel,” he said.

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said he was expecting much bigger cuts, and the final result is “amazing to me.” He said, “I want to compliment all those that have worked so diligently to find the funds necessary to protect our K-12 education budget.”

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