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A week and much angst later, new Idaho school budget matches old one

JFAC meets on Wednesday afternoon (Betsy Russell)
JFAC meets on Wednesday afternoon (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers crafted a new public schools budget Wednesday virtually identical to the Senate-rejected $1.03 billion spending plan that pushed the legislative session into overtime last week.

But this version was the result of a different process – including a public hearing early Wednesday before the joint House and Senate Education committees – that appears to have won over Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who led the move to kill the plan last week.

“From what I know at this point, I plan on voting for the budget,” Goedde said late Wednesday. “I don’t have any huge arguments with what’s been moving forward.”

Goedde and others in the Senate had objected to two items included in the original version: $21 million for locally directed teacher merit bonuses and professional development in school districts; and $3 million for grants for technology pilot projects. Both were split out into a new bill, SB 1199, that was heard by the House and Senate Education committees on Wednesday morning, then passed by both houses the same day and sent to the governor.

The school budget still funds those items, but refers to SB 1199 to describe them, rather than writing them into the budget.

Goedde said he thought the original version was “an overstep” by the joint budget committee. “We took care of that,” he said.

Both those items are funded for next year only, as a task force of education stakeholders convened by Gov. Butch Otter and an interim legislative study committee both launch hearings around the state over the coming months on how Idaho should improve its schools in the future.

Both moves follow the voters’ rejection of three referendum measures in November, repealing the “Students Come First” school reform laws, which called for big technology boosts, including a laptop computer for every high school student; a new merit-pay bonus system for teachers, even as base pay was cut; and rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights. Several provisions of those labor law changes have been reintroduced this session at the behest of the Idaho School Boards Association, and most, though not all, have passed.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, a retired teacher who opposed the Students Come First laws, termed the revival of any of those provisions “horrible,” and said, “They were all three put down, and I can’t believe we can’t respect that at least for a year.”

Ringo supported the original school budget this year, HB 323, and also supported the new version on Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s really much of substance that’s different,” she said. “I think it was kind of an expensive exercise.”

It costs an estimated $30,000 for every day the Idaho Legislature remains in session; last week’s rejection of the school budget in the Senate derailed a planned adjournment last Friday, pushing the session into this week. Now, lawmakers hope to adjournThursday.

Said Goedde, “We’re out by noon.”

This year’s original school budget was a compromise that had drawn support from the state’s teachers union, the school boards association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who originally pushed the “Students Come First” laws. Luna co-sponsored SB 1199 on Wednesday with Goedde and House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle.

DeMordaunt told the House, “There was no opposition to this whatsoever.”

The budget gives schools a 2.2 percent increase in state funding for next year, above the governor’s recommendation of 2 percent, but below Luna’s request of 3 percent.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved the new school budget Wednesday afternoon on a series of 16-4 votes, picking up one more vote than the original, which passed 15-5.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, voted no both times, saying there were “no changes from the previous budget;” Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, did the same. Opponents in the first go-round opposed restoring cuts in teacher base pay, saying they preferred to instead restore cuts in discretionary funding to school districts.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, switched his vote. “We had our discussion, we lost, and I still think there could have been some adjustments … but I didn’t see that voting against it was going to do any good,” he said. “It was not a bad budget to begin with.”