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Luna pitches 5.1% funding boost for Idaho schools

State schools chief Tom Luna makes his budget pitch to state lawmakers on Thursday (Betsy Russell)
State schools chief Tom Luna makes his budget pitch to state lawmakers on Thursday (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – Idaho’s schools, hard-hit by budget cuts during years of economic downturn, would see a 5.1 percent boost in funding next year, under a budget plan pitched to lawmakers Thursday by state schools chief Tom Luna.

Luna’s proposed $66.9 million increase for schools is well above the 2.9 percent, $37 million increase Gov. Butch Otter has recommended. And unlike Otter, Luna’s calling for modest raises for teachers next year – Otter recommended none.

“He laid out a blueprint that will give us something to work with,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

Said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the House co-chair of the panel, “It’s a slow road back.”

Even with the increase, Luna’s $1.37 billion proposed budget for Idaho schools for next year falls below the 2009 level of $1.42 billion.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who serves on the joint budget committee, said when he looks at Luna’s and Otter’s proposals, “I’m somewhere in the middle.”

Idaho’s schools need to catch up on pressing needs that have gone unfunded, from salary boosts to things like building maintenance, Eskridge said, “if we can make it work in the budget.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “Overall, it looked pretty good. … I would like to emphasize salaries a little more than the superintendent even, though I applaud him for being ahead of the governor.”

With lawmakers looking at plans to give state employees a 2 percent average pay boost next year, half permanent and half in one-time bonuses, Luna proposed a similar plan for teachers: He called for a 1 percent increase in base teacher pay, plus $16 million in one-time bonuses for teachers who take leadership roles, from mentoring new colleagues to helping write curriculum.

Those bonuses are in line with the recommendations of Otter’s education improvement task force, Luna said, which laid out a $350 million package of reforms, including big boosts to teacher pay. The boosts would mostly come through a new career ladder pay system that hasn’t yet been developed, but Luna said the leadership bonuses are a part of the plan that can start next year.

“Once the career ladder is fully implemented, starting salary will increase to $40,000,” Luna told lawmakers at a closely watched budget hearing Thursday in the state Capitol. “The two other tiers in the career ladder would reach close to $50,000 and $60,000, respectively. However, until we make this transition, I believe we should fund a combination of leadership awards and a base salary increase for teachers so that we make progress where we can on the task force’s recommendation regarding teacher compensation.”

Otter has endorsed the task force’s plan and called for phasing it in over five years, but nixed any raises next year because the career ladder hadn’t yet been developed. It will be tied to a new tiered teacher licensing system.

The task force had recommended $42 million next year for the first step in putting the new career ladder in place.

Cameron said, “I think all of us agree that the current system is not adequate to reward and retain our best teachers.”

The current year’s school budget includes $21 million for one-time leadership bonuses for teachers and for professional development. When Otter left that money out of his proposed budget for next year, Luna called that a $21 million pay cut for teachers.

Luna’s budget proposal also calls for $35 million next year to restore operating funds cut from Idaho schools through the recession; more than $80 million was cut. That recommendation matches Otter’s. Still, the budget Luna proposed for schools for next year falls $50.8 million below the budget lawmakers set for fiscal year 2009.

“Going forward, if we are to accomplish the implementation of the task force recommendations over the next five years, it will require this kind of funding increases every year going forward,” Luna told lawmakers. “I believe we have the funding this year for each of the requests I put forward.”

He called for moving to collect sales taxes on online purchases in future years to help fund the additional phases of the plan. Idaho already technically imposes its 6 percent tax on online purchases, but it doesn’t collect the tax; residents are supposed to self-report their purchases and pay up on their annual income tax returns, but few do.

Said Luna, “I believe that a way to keep taxes low is to make sure we’re collecting every penny we’re owed.”


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