Idaho

Idaho school budget funds laptops, merit pay

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, center, argues that Idaho's not doing enough to reward public school teachers in the state budget. (Betsy Russell)
Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, center, argues that Idaho's not doing enough to reward public school teachers in the state budget. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho schools would see a small funding boost on the heels of last year’s cuts, under a budget set by the Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee Monday in a series of party-line votes.

Minority Democrats on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held out for an additional $8.4 million for teacher pay boosts and technology training, but were outvoted 16-4. The joint committee instead set a $1.28 billion budget that includes a 4.6 percent increase in state general funds. Total funds, at $1.57 billion, are up just 0.4 percent, as federal stimulus grants end.

The plan fully funds state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” reform plan, which includes a new merit-pay bonus program and phased-in technology boosts including laptop computers for every high school student and teacher. However, it doesn’t follow the plan’s requirement to cut teacher salary funds to pay for those new programs; instead it “backfills” the budget with additional money to make up the teacher salary cuts.

“We’re still going to have about $100 million less than we had just a few years ago for our public schools, but look at how much more we’re getting from this,” Luna said after the votes. He lauded moves in the budget to increase Idaho’s minimum teacher salary from $30,000 a year to $30,500, which he said would affect 31 percent of Idaho teachers, along with full funding for “a pay-for-performance plan that’s second to none in the country.”

He’s estimating that 85 percent of teachers will qualify for some kind of bonus next year under the merit-pay plan; between that, the reversal of of the salary-fund cuts and the boost in minimum teacher pay, Luna’s office estimates that Idaho’s average state-funded teacher salary next year will rise by roughly $2,300, from $36,463 this year to $38,824 next year.

“This is the largest increase we’ve had in teacher pay … since I’ve been in office,” Luna said.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, saw it differently, warning, “I’m afraid that right now across the state there are a lot of teachers that just think we hate them. It’s difficult to do a hard job when you feel that those above you don’t appreciate it. We really have asked teachers to pay a lot for our budget and carry a lot of the burden for our difficult budget times.”

She and other committee Democrats tried to add in $6 million to give teachers back raises they would have received last year for additional years of experience if lawmakers hadn’t frozen the teacher salary grid to cope with budget cuts.

“The minimum salary only affects those new teachers,” LeFavour said. “But unfreezing the grid is something really important we have to do to retain some of our good teachers who frankly are leaving the profession in droves right now.”

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, countered that it would set “a very dangerous precedent” to restore pay cuts from lean budget years for teachers, and would lead to demands to do the same for other state employees. Idaho lawmakers haven’t funded raises for state employees for the past four years.

The public schools budget, which still must pass both houses and receive the governor’s signature to become law, includes more than $2.5 million for laptops in 2013. It also puts $38 million toward the merit pay plan, which allows teachers to earn bonuses for raising student achievement and taking on hard-to-fill positions or leadership roles.

Luna supported reversing the “Students Come First” salary-fund cuts for next year. Legislation has passed the Senate unanimously to reverse them for all future years as well, but it hasn’t yet come up for a hearing in the House Education Committee, where Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, has raised concerns that the move could endanger future reform funding.

The entire reform package, which also included eliminating most collective bargaining rights for teachers, is up for a referendum vote in November on whether to repeal it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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