January 24, 2014 in Idaho

Idaho schools chief Tom Luna pitches $66.9 million plan

By The Spokesman-Review
 
In the plan

Idaho schools chief Tom Luna’s proposed budget for next year includes:

• A 1 percent base pay increase for teachers, at a cost of $6.9 million, plus $16 million for one-time bonuses for teachers who take on leadership roles.

• Raises averaging 2 percent for non-teaching positions, including classified staff such as janitors and lunch servers, and administrative employees, who wouldn’t share in the leadership bonuses. That would total $4.1 million.

• $13.5 million for school technology, the same amount schools got this year, including $2.25 million to continue the statewide high school Wi-Fi contract Luna signed over the summer and $3 million for a second round of technology pilot projects in school districts.

• Restoring $35 million of the more than $82 million in operating funds cut from schools since 2009.

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 calls 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 the plan looked good overall, but “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 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 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 been developed. It will be tied to a new tiered teacher licensing system.

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

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