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Luna calls for 3% budget boost for Idaho schools

Tom Luna addresses the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (Betsy Russell)
Tom Luna addresses the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – A humbled Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna told state lawmakers Thursday that regardless of how it’s done, he wants Idaho to keep investing in teacher pay and classroom technology.

Luna, whose ambitious “Students Come First” school reform laws were roundly rejected by voters in November, including plans to supply every Idaho high school student with a laptop computer, said he’s OK with the money being spent differently – but he wants it spent on schools.

“We made tremendous progress on getting monies for technology and for teacher compensation thorough the legislation that was passed in 2011,” Luna said. “Now, I understand that for any number of reasons, those laws were overturned. But I don’t think anybody voted against those laws because they wanted us to spend less money on education this year or any year going forward.”

Luna called for a 3 percent increase in state funding for schools in Idaho next year, exceeding the 2 percent increase already backed by Gov. Butch Otter. And he staked out a strong position against a raid on the school budget to take away the reform funds, including the money for the laptops, and shift it to other uses like a tax cut for Idaho businesses.

“It’s important and necessary that districts and schools receive the money they were expecting,” Luna told the Legislature’s joint budget committee. “It’s the right thing to do. So I’m pleased that legislators on both sides of the aisle and educators from across the state have made it clear that they support the Legislature following through on the original fiscal year 2013 appropriation.”

Luna called for sending school districts another $10.4 million for classroom technology next year, with districts largely deciding on their own how to spend the funds. He said that’s critical “to make sure there’s no interruption” in funding technology in Idaho schools, even as a stakeholders task force looks into possible school improvements in the wake of the failure of the “Students Come First” laws.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she supported that move. “Whatever the debate over technology, we know that the schools are using it,” she said. “We really need to have that support in there.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he sees “broad support” for keeping the funds that school districts expected to get this year – including those allocated specifically for the reform laws – headed to schools. Districts have set budgets based on getting that state money, he said, and “they need to be held harmless.”

Goedde said he’d like to see the $2.5 million in this year’s budget that was specifically for laptop computers under the now-canceled program go for “either technology or professional development.”

Luna, like Otter, called for setting aside $33.9 million in next year’s public school budget to cover recommendations that might be made by Otter’s stakeholder task force. Without that money, he noted, his proposed budget is virtually flat from this year’s level.

Luna said Idaho needs to increase teacher pay, but he didn’t propose a pay hike for teachers next year, other than restoring the 1.67 percent cut in teacher salary funds from the “Students Come First” laws and a $500 boost to the Idaho’s minimum teacher salary to $31,000 a year. That minimum peaked at $31,750 in 2008-09, so the boost still wouldn’t bring it back up to that level.

Luna suggested that some type of merit pay or “differential compensation” for teachers still could be considered by the stakeholder group. Whatever that plan may be, it’ll be different than the merit-pay bonus plan voters repealed, Luna said. “I’m comfortable with that,” he said. “I’m comfortable working with the members of the task force and the Legislature … so that we can work together to make sure every penny continues to go to educators.”

Luna’s overall budget proposal for next year still would put the state below its school funding level in 2009.

“So many agencies, many areas of government are operating on considerably less than we had in 2009, and schools are no different,” he said. “I’m very pleased that we’re looking at an increase in the amount of money that we’ll be spending on public schools in Idaho. Having lived through a couple of years when that wasn’t the case, this is very positive news for our schools.”

Luna is proposing $1.31 billion in state general funds for schools next year, a 3 percent increase from this year; and $1.6 billion in total funds, a 2.6 percent increase from this year.