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Idaho schools chief pitches budget plan, reforms

Idaho schools Supt. Tom Luna answers questions from lawmakers Thursday morning about his public school budget request. (Betsy Russell)
Idaho schools Supt. Tom Luna answers questions from lawmakers Thursday morning about his public school budget request. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho public schools chief Tom Luna told lawmakers Thursday he wants to offset a planned $19 million reduction in Idaho teacher pay and benefits next year using projected state revenue the governor had hoped to funnel into a rainy day account for education.

The state is poised to move the money from salaries to help pay for classroom technology and teacher pay-for-performance as part of Luna’s “Students Come First” education changes, which were signed into law last year. In November, measures asking voters to throw out Luna’s reforms will be on the ballot.

This year, the state is shifting about $14.7 million in employee pay and benefits to help pay for the education changes.

The reduced state funding for salaries has resulted in fewer teachers and larger class sizes for some school districts. To preserve salaries in the next year, which starts July 1, Luna wants to backfill the $19.4 million set to be shifted away from employee pay and benefits.

Luna’s plan relies on $29 million in projected state revenues that Gov. Butch Otter wanted to shift into a reserve fund for public education in 2013. Under Otter’s plan, teachers and other state workers would receive bonuses if state tax revenues stayed on track.

Luna, however, contends that it’s more important to offset the reduction in salaries before replenishing the reserves.

“I recommend we put revenues toward salary-based apportionment first,” Luna told legislative budget writers.

Idaho teachers overall would see an additional 5 percent increase in compensation next year if merit pay is included, said Luna, who estimated that 85 percent of educators statewide would benefit from the pay-for-performance plan under Students Come First.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who co-chairs the Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee, said he agreed with Luna’s argument for giving teachers a degree of certainty regarding their paychecks. But Cameron, who opposed Luna’s changes during the 2011 session, asked the schools chief if he was proposing changing the mechanism in the education law that would shift money from salaries over the next five years.

Luna responded, “No, we’re not asking for changes to the law that was passed last year.” He added, however, that teachers will continue to see the same commitment from him to backfill the money being shifted from their salaries, if state revenues permit.

The budget Luna presented to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee includes $1.27 billion in state general funding for public schools. That’s a 4.7 percent increase, or $57 million, more than the state is spending on public education in the current fiscal year, according to the state Department of Education.

Luna said his spending plan for 2013 falls in line with the governor’s budget recommendation, though the governor only called for a 2.6 percent increase for schools. That’s partly because the state now expects smaller increases in its student population, reducing costs by $8 million, and because Luna would tap into funds the governor wanted to put in reserves.

Earlier this week, however, an Idaho legislative committee recommended a state budget package based on a tax revenue forecast that’s about $33 million less than the one favored by Otter for the next fiscal year. Luna downplayed the difference between the revenue projection from the governor and the Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee.

“Historically, I think it’d be difficult to find a year, where in almost a $3 billion dollar budget, you have the governor’s revenue number and the outlook committee within $33 million dollars, so I think that’s a great starting point,” Luna said.

“I’m confident that when we’re done, we will have a budget that fully funds all of the elements of the Students Come First education reforms, and keeps teacher salaries equal to what they are today,” he said.

Luna said two-thirds of Idaho high schools have expressed interest in being among the first third of schools to get new laptop computers for each student under Students Come First, so he’s convinced there’s “overwhelming support that’s been developed for this one-to-one program.” He said, “I think when we get to November of this year, the last thing people are going to want to do is go back to what it was before.”

Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.

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