March 6, 2012 in Idaho

Idaho plan spends more on schools

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Idaho schools would see a small spending boost on the heels of last year’s cuts, under a budget set by the Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee Monday.

Minority Democrats on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held out for an additional $8.4 million for teacher pay 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 because of declines in federal spending as 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 state 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 boost pay for 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 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.

State 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 back raises teachers would have received last year if lawmakers hadn’t frozen teacher salaries to cope with budget cuts.

LeFavour said that was important “to retain some of our good teachers who frankly are leaving the profession in droves right now.”

State 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 Associated Press contributed to this report.


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