Finance committee OKs $1.3 billion school budget
BOISE – Idaho would restore cuts to state funding for teacher salaries made over the past three years under a public schools budget set Monday by a legislative committee.
Five Republicans on the Legislature’s joint budget committee opposed the move, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both houses backed the successful $1.3 billion budget plan.
Opponent Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said workers in other state agencies aren’t getting raises next year. But Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said it’s “not really a raise. It’s just restoring them to where they were before the downturn in the economy.”
The schools budget set Monday represents a 2.2 percent increase from this year in state funding and a 2 percent boost in total funding. Gov. Butch Otter had recommended a 2 percent increase; 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 school budget 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.
It 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 differential that was 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 $11.3 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.
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 has been growing quickly.
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; 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.
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.
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