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Vote puts Idaho teacher bonus money on the line

BOISE – As Idaho voters decide on a sweeping education overhaul this November, teachers opposing the reforms may find themselves in a bind at the ballot box: By rejecting the changes, they could also be turning down a performance bonus after years of reduced or stagnant salaries.

Idaho introduced merit pay under the reforms approved in 2011 and teachers worked toward those financial incentives last year. But the bonuses won’t be paid out until Nov. 15, nine days after the referendum, and state officials say they can’t distribute the money if the laws are repealed.

The timeline is prompting outcry from the state’s teachers union, which is fighting to overturn the reforms authored by Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna.

“The state Department (of Education) is holding this money hostage,” said Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr. “The teachers earned it, the legislature appropriated it last year, and they intended it to be used for teacher compensation.”

Luna’s office counters that the bonus payout plan follows the law and the only barrier to handing out the money would be the referendum spearheaded by the union.

“It’s not fair for them to say we’re holding them hostage, they’re the ones that put the referendum on the ballot, which is the only reason why these bonuses couldn’t be paid,” Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said. “We did not ask for there to be a referendum.”

If the laws are voted down, McGrath said, the state won’t have the legal authority to distribute the funding.

Idaho has long debated whether teacher pay should be tied to things like student test scores.

Sonia Galaviz, a Boise elementary teacher opposing the reforms, said she hasn’t yet learned if she earned a merit bonus while working in the Nampa district last year. She’s more concerned about the future of public education in Idaho, not the pay-for-performance money, she said.

“Truthfully, that’s the last thing on my mind,” said Galaviz, whose salary has been frozen for three years. “I don’t care about the bonus.”

She’d rather the merit pay money go toward increasing all educator salaries, she said, not just those who meet pay-for-performance goals. With merit pay, however, Luna made the case for paying teachers differently, arguing the old system was unfair and compensated good teachers the same as the bad.

Luna’s department contends not every teacher will be faced with the dilemma of wanting to oppose merit pay with a salary boost at stake.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say a majority of teachers are going to go the ballot box and have this dilemma,” McGrath said. “I think some teachers might, but there are a lot of teachers who support pay-for-performance.”

The bonuses are being jeopardized following three years of recession-driven pay cuts and salary freezes. Idaho is also shifting $14.7 million from salaries to fund parts of Luna’s reforms that pay for high school students to earn college credit and boost minimum teacher pay while restoring raises for those who further their education.

Lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 to avoid future salary shifts, and found $38.7 million in new revenue for merit pay, under the increased public schools budget for this year.

Luna’s department insists its hands are tied when it comes to the timing of the bonus payout because the law says school districts were to receive the money as part of their third funding installment for the year. Districts receive that third piece of funding Nov. 15.

He couldn’t have known the money budgeted for bonuses would be subject to voter approval days before it was scheduled to go out, McGrath said.

“They won’t let a thinly veiled attempt to bully them into voting for these laws keep them from doing what’s right,” Cyr said.


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