March 4, 2013 in City, Idaho

Idaho may restore some teacher pay cuts

By The Spokesman-Review
 
How they voted

Here’s how North Idaho lawmakers voted on the school budget plan Monday; opponents wanted to refrain from restoring $11 million in teacher salary funds cut over the past three years:

VOTING YES: Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow; and Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston; and Reps. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow; George Eskridge, R-Dover; and Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston.

VOTING NO: Sens. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens; and Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood.

BOISE – Idaho would restore a series of cuts to teacher salary funds made over the past three years that have caused a budget crunch in local school districts, under a budget for public schools set by the Legislature’s joint budget committee on Monday.

Five Republicans on the joint committee opposed the move, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both houses backed the successful $1.3 billion budget plan.

“That’s not really a raise. It’s just restoring them to where they were before the downturn in the economy,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.

Opponent Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said workers in other state agencies aren’t getting raises next year. “There is displacement – we only have so much of a budget,” he said.

The public schools budget set Monday shows just a 2.2 percent increase from this year in state funding, and 2 percent in total funding. Gov. Butch Otter had recommended a 2 percent boost; state schools Superintendent Tom Luna had called for 3 percent.

But Luna praised the spending plan Monday. “This is a responsible budget that works to meet the needs of our students across the state,” he said.

The newly set school budget – it still must pass both houses and receive the governor’s signature to become law, but budgets rarely are changed after they’re set by the joint committee – restores two key cuts to salary funds:

- It adds back the 1.67 percent cut from state funds for teacher salaries under the voter-rejected “Students Come First” laws, which shifted the money to other priorities including merit-pay bonuses and a big new technology push.

- It restores two years of experience that were frozen in the state’s teacher salary grid in 2010 and 2011, which determines how much the state sends school districts to pay teachers’ salaries.

That second item was a key sticking point on Monday. The freeze in the salary grid is saving the state $11 million a year, but it didn’t necessarily cut pay for teachers and administrators. Instead, it cut the salary money the state sent to districts to cover those costs. The result has been a budget crunch for school districts across the state.

For example, if a district has a teacher with seven years experience, the state provides funding for a teacher with five years experience. It’s up to the district to cope with the shortfall.

Ringo said, “Now, we know that some school districts have tried to make them whole by running override levies.”

Three-quarters of Idaho school districts now have voter-approved supplemental property tax levies to help make up for state funding shortfalls, and the number’s been growing quickly.

Restoring the 1.67 percent cut to state salary funds is a $14.8 million a year item.

The budget also includes $13.4 million for classroom technology; $21 million for a combination of professional development for teachers and one-time bonuses for those who improve student achievement, with local school districts determining that; and a small boost in the minimum teacher salary, from $30,500 to $31,000.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers are paying attention to the message Idaho voters sent when they rejected the reform laws in November. “Although people wanted technology, they didn’t want it as a reduction in teacher pay,” he said.

He called the budget “a very modest increase,” but said it’s notable because “it does fund some of the reductions that we have done in the past.”

Ringo, a retired teacher, said she still worries that Idaho is inadequately funding salaries for experienced teachers. She said she tracked an experienced teacher’s pay through the years of budget cuts, and found “a loss of some $9,000 in compensation for an individual in that position.” Ringo said, “We need to shine a light on how we compensate our experienced teachers – I think we haven’t given them enough.”

Cameron noted that the state’s total funding that it sends to school districts for teacher salaries remains well below the 2009 level, even with the boosts in the budget plan.

The budget includes a small, 1.5 percent increase in discretionary funds to school districts.

The $13.4 million for classroom technology includes $2 million to complete wireless Internet systems in Idaho high schools and $3 million for “pilot programs” using technology, designed by local school districts. They’d apply to the state Department of Education for the funds.


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