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Idaho teachers will get earned merit pay

Payment deadline comes before election results are certified

BOISE – It turns out both sides were wrong: Idaho teachers who earned merit-pay bonuses last year under a controversial school-reform law will get those payments this fall, regardless of the outcome of a Nov. 6 vote on whether to repeal the law.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, the author of the laws, has been saying his department would have no legal authority to send out the payments if voters turn down the referendum on the law. The Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers union, meanwhile, has accused Luna of holding the bonus payments hostage to pressure teachers to back the law.

The question revolved around timing. Luna said state law required him to wait to distribute the bonuses earned last year until a Nov. 15 payment was made from the state to school districts. However, a 2012 amendment to one of the “Students Come First” reform laws specified that the bonuses go out “by no later than” the third annual payment to school districts made on Nov. 15, rather than requiring that they be “made as part of” that payment.

Still, the state Department of Education maintained that other timelines, including an appeal period for school districts, would prevent the payment from being sent out earlier.

IEA President Penni Cyr, in a letter to Luna last week, urged him to send out the bonus payments before the election. “The money that was appropriated for teacher compensation should in fact be distributed as such, and should not be held until after the election,” Cyr wrote.

It turns out it doesn’t matter. Even if voters decide on Nov. 6 to repeal the law, the move doesn’t take effect until the election results are certified by the state Board of Canvassers and the governor issues a proclamation – both of which are scheduled to occur on Nov. 21.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said the Board of Canvassers, which consists of himself, the state controller and the state treasurer, is scheduled to meet Nov. 21, after receiving reports from county boards of canvassers.

That means regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 6 vote, the bonus payments would go out, because on Nov. 15, the final day to send them out, the merit-pay law still would be in effect.

Melissa McGrath, state Department of Education spokeswoman, who earlier said the referendum was “the only reason why these bonuses couldn’t be paid,” said Thursday, “We’re going to put it in the Nov. 15 payment as long as we’re able to.”

Luna said in a statement, “I will find any way legally possible to distribute this money to Idaho’s teachers, not just this year but every year.”

Brian Cronin, a retiring state lawmaker who strongly opposed the education-reform laws and now is a consultant for the referendum campaign, said, “That’s happy news. So we would expect that the department would acknowledge their error and this political football that’s now lost all its air will become a nonissue. … Now voters can really focus on the real issues of this campaign, whether this plan actually makes any sense.”

The school reform laws, which Luna dubbed “Students Come First,” have three parts: They roll back most collective bargaining rights for teachers; institute a merit-pay bonus program; and call for phasing in a laptop computer for every high school student, other technology boosts, and a new focus on online learning, while shifting priorities within the state’s public school budget to make the new tech and merit-pay programs top priority for funding.

Opponents collected more than 70,000 signatures to place the three laws on the ballot for a possible voter repeal. If Idaho voters vote yes on Propositions 1, 2 and 3, they support keeping the reform laws; if they vote no, they support repeal.

Ysursa said questions about the timing likely are arising because referenda on accepting laws passed by the Legislature are rare; there only have been four others in the state’s history.

Typically, the filing of a referendum would suspend a law from taking effect until after the voters have had their say, Ysursa explained. But after opponents began gathering signatures for the referenda, lawmakers pushed through follow-up bills adding emergency clauses to all three laws, making them take effect immediately.

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