May 15, 2011 in Idaho

Eye on Boise: Luna aide says reform plan isn’t bringing new staffers

Betsy Z.Russell
 

BOISE – Although rumors are rife that the Idaho State Department of Education has added highly paid staffers to implement the new Students Come First school reform plan, Luci Willits, chief of staff for state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, says it’s not true.

“We’re doing what we’re asking school districts to do, which is to do things differently” with existing funding, Willits said. “At this point we haven’t hired anyone new. All we’ve done is re-purposed positions.” She added, “Everyone’s job at the department will be changing under Students Come First.”

Two positions already are changing: Deputy Superintendent Mary Beth Flachbart will oversee the implementation of the reforms, which include shifting teacher salary funds to technology investments, starting a teacher merit-pay bonus program, and phasing in a program to provide one laptop computer or other computing device for every Idaho high school student. Flachbart, who oversees federal programs, special education, Title 1 and school improvement efforts, will continue to be a deputy superintendent; her salary of $89,315 a year (before furloughs) won’t change because of the new assignment.

Camille Wells, a program specialist at the department for communication and governmental affairs, will be promoted to a “coordinator” position in which she’ll work full time on Students Come First, Willits said. That will move her up a pay grade; her new salary hasn’t been set, but it will rise from the current $34,507 a year (before furloughs) to at least $44,034 a year in the new pay grade.

Willits noted that the reform plan is phased over several years. “Some things happen now, some in the future,” she said.

Luna’s Department of Education budget for next year will see a 10.5 percent boost in state general funds, but that’s in part because a federal grant ended to fund the state’s student longitudinal data system and the state is having to pick up those costs, including six positions. “We had a 3.5 percent cut overall in the department if you look separately from the longitudinal data system,” Willits said.

That system, to track student achievement, was a requirement of receiving federal stimulus funds; Idaho was the last state to get one. According to state budget documents, the number of authorized full-time positions at the department will rise from 130 this year to 133 next year; three positions were eliminated due to budget cuts.

Seniors vs. lawmakers

The Idaho AARP has issued a new report on campaign contributions in Idaho, concluding that corporations, businesses and political action committees spent $2.7 million on Idaho’s winning 2010 campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor and state Legislature; that 35 percent of those contributions came from outside Idaho; and that nearly 90 percent of lawmakers got the majority of their campaign funds from those groups.

Idaho AARP State Director Jim Wordelman said the group was disappointed with the Legislature’s lack of response to AARP members’ concerns this year, including finding new revenues to address the state budget shortfall, such as closing business tax loopholes, rather than cutting programs; and protecting the wishes of dying patients from being overridden by medical providers.

“The outcomes of this past legislative session left many AARP members believing that Idaho has a golden rule, and that is, those who have the gold make the rules,” Wordelman said. “When the most powerful voting group in Idaho, voters aged 50 and older, feels that their voices and issues are ignored by state lawmakers, we’ve got an issue of public confidence in the system.”

The seniors group is calling for requiring Idaho candidates to raise the majority of their campaign funds from individuals living in their districts; limiting contributions to and by PACs; and limiting contributions to state political parties.

Off-roader alert

Under much-debated legislation passed by the Idaho Legislature this year, those 15 or younger who ride off-highway vehicles on national forest roads are required to be supervised by an adult who is riding within 300 feet; also, all unlicensed riders must take an approved off-highway vehicle safety course. The new law, SB 1001, takes effect July 1, but the state Department of Parks and Recreation is urging young off-road enthusiasts to sign up for the required classes now. You can find out about available classes at the state Parks Department’s website, parksandrecreation.idaho.gov.


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