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Voters pass 41 of 48 school bond, levy measures

Yesterday was Election Day in an array of Idaho school districts, and voters approved nearly $209 million in school levies and bond issues, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. Richert reports that voters approved 41 of 48 ballot measures for schools statewide. The biggest winner was Twin Falls, where voters backed a $73.8 million building bond measure to make room for a growing student population; the biggest-ticket ballot item was handed the election’s biggest loss, as a $92 million bond issue in the growing Bonneville School District was resoundingly rejected by voters. The closest calls: A levy in Wallace passed by just three votes, while a $4.8 million bond in Eastern Idaho’s North Gem district failed by just four votes. You can read Richert’s full report here.

Ed task force members: There’s agreement on needed changes, now political will needed too

Three members of the governor’s education stakeholders’ task force, which delivered a near-unanimous package of 20 recommendations to improve Idaho’s schools to Gov. Butch Otter this year, told the City Club of Boise today that it’s a mistake to focus on the potential price tag, which could eventually stretch to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I’ve heard a lot of pushback about the cost - sticker shock’s got everybody,” said Richard Westerberg, a state Board of Education member who chaired the task force. “But I’ve yet to hear the first real criticism of the recommendations in the plan on its function. They’re good recommendations. Can it all be funded in one year? Of course not.” Westerberg said the recommendations are a framework, and the state needs to come up with a plan to accomplish it over time, while also filling in the details. “There’s a whole lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done here,” he said. “You’ve got a really good plan from a bunch of smart, dedicated folks saying, ‘Here’s what we think could help.’ I think the Legislature really wants to do right this year. I’m hopeful.”

Linda Clark, superintendent of the Meridian School District, the state’s largest district, said across the nation, states spend an average of roughly $10,000 per student to educate youngsters, while Idaho spends less than half that. “Can you fund a ‘world class’ school system at 50 percent of the average?” she asked. Years of budget cuts have cost her school district $10 million a year in state funding for basic operations, she said, and left it 117 teachers and 19 administrators below the state allocation. “That results in very high class sizes and very large work portfolios for folks. I’m concerned that as we track that over time, it will have an impact on achievement.”

Mike Lanza, a Boise parent who played a key role in the campaign to overturn the “Students Come First” school reform laws, said, “We’re not attempting to take a small step. … Because we’ve been disinvesting in education, we’ve put ourselves at a disadvantage.” He said, “It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that Idaho is on its way to becoming the Mississippi of the 21st century if we don’t start to do something about this. … We’ve basically created an inexpensive school system, which is not necessarily compatible with a great school system.”

Westerberg said the latest estimates show that by 2020, 60 to 66 percent of jobs in Idaho will require some education beyond high school, whether that’s college or a one-year certification. But now, he said, just over a third of the population gets that. “This state just is not ready for the future of employment,” he said. Meanwhile, the task force members noted that as Idaho has crimped its education funding, it’s fallen in relation to other states in personal income, and risen to first in the nation for the proportion of minimum-wage jobs. All three said a better education system is key to Idaho’s economic future, and noted that, surprisingly, the 31 diverse members of the task force virtually all agreed on what’s needed.

“While this level of collaboration and collegiality is not unprecedented in Idaho, it has been a very long time,” Clark said. Said Lanza, “There’s not a lot of disagreement … on what it takes to deliver education effectively. … We need the political will to do what many people understand needs to be done.”

PERSI change drops Luna’s proposed school budget hike from 5.9% to 5.4%

State Schools Supt. Tom Luna’s proposed 5.9 percent budget increase for public schools next year has dropped to 5.4 percent, Clark Corbin of Idaho EdNews reports, but not because Luna’s changed what he’s asking for. Instead, a recent decision by the PERSI board to hold off on a scheduled rate increase, due to strong earnings in the pension fund, changed the overall numbers. The Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho covers state and local government employees, school district employees and more; PERSI is among benefit costs built into calculations for all state agency budgets.

Tim Hill, deputy superintendent for public school finance, told Corbin the PERSI change made a $7.2 million difference in the public school budget calculations. Now, Luna’s proposed increase for next year comes in at $69.9 million, down from the previous $77 million; you can read Corbin’s full report here.

Luna asks for more time to craft school budget request to match task force recommendations

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna has asked for more time to prepare the 2014-15 public schools budget request so he can build it around an education reform task force’s recommendations, Idaho Education News reports. While state agencies typically submit budget requests around Sept. 1, Luna submitted only a placeholder “statutory budget” on Sept. 3, IdahoEdNews reporter Clark Corbin writes, and asked for an extra 30 days to submit a formal budget request “so I will be able to submit a budget that is relevant to the Task Force’s recommendations.” The request was granted by Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, and Idaho legislative services director Jeff Youtz. You can read Corbin’s full report here.

Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, told Idaho EdNews, “Superintendent Luna will be working closely with all stakeholders as well as the staff at the State Department of Education on developing a budget request that addresses the recommendations of the Task Force.” The stakeholders task force, appointed by Otter and coordinated by the State Board of Education, gave near-unanimous approval to a sweeping set of proposals last month, from boosting Idaho teachers’ pay to advancing students to the next grade only when they’ve mastered the material.

Most Idaho school tax levy votes pass, North Idaho district can now reverse deep cuts

For one small North Idaho school district, yesterday’s levy election results brought welcome news, with voters approving a two-year $1.1 million supplemental level that’ll allow the reversal of deep cuts, including eliminating all sports, cutting kindergarten to half-time, furlough days for all employees and cutting a day off the school week starting this fall. “Needless to say, we are ecstatic,” Plummer-Worley Superintendent Judi Sharrett told S-R reporter Scott Maben; you can read his full report here. The final tally was 561 votes in favor, 374 against. This morning, in a special meeting, the school board voted to reinstate funding for sports, full-day kindergarten and a five-day school week.

Plummer-Worley had been the only school district in North Idaho without a voter-approved supplemental property tax levy to offset state budget cuts to school; an earlier levy proposal fell short in May. It was one of about half a dozen Idaho school districts with levy elections yesterday; most passed. Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News reports that Cassia County and Emmett school districts passed levies after scaling back proposals that earlier failed. Homedale voters rejected a levy for a second time, while Parma voters overwhelmingly approved a 10-year, $2.5 million facilities levy. You can read Richert’s full report here.

Superintendents to Luna: ‘We are starving to death in our districts’

Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna met with school district superintendents from around the state this morning, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News; he was asked about everything from the budget to Common Core to the state’s controversial new high school WiFi contract. Richert reports that American Falls Superintendent Tom Bollinger put Luna on the spot about the state’s decision to park $85 million of surplus money in its rainy-day fund, the Budget Stabilization Fund. “We are starving to death in our districts,” Bollinger said. Luna responded that there’s some “wisdom” in replenishing the savings. But he did say public schools are headed into a pivotal budget year in 2014, because of better-than-expected state revenues, and because an education reform task force is expected to make its recommendation to Gov. Butch Otter later this summer.

Richert reports that the only question about the WiFi contract was from Cottonwood Superintendent Rene Forsmann, who wondered when she could expect to see her district hooked up. You can read Richert’s full report here.

As pay cuts loom, growing number of Nampa teachers quit

As teacher contract negotiations continue in the Nampa School District, Idaho Education News reports that nearly 100 teachers and community members participated in an hour-long tailgate party before last night’s school board meeting, designed to welcome new board members and urge the district to focus on retaining good teachers, at a time when as many as 20 percent of Nampa’s teachers have quit their jobs ahead of the upcoming school year.

 “We continue to have people come in and tender their resignations, and that is ongoing,” said Interim Superintendent Pete Koehler, Idaho EdNews reports. “I expect that to continue all the way up through the month of July until we hit the point where the law says we must now take action.” You can read the full report here from reporter Clark Corbin.

Former teacher Bonnie Richardson said six of Nampa High School’s eight English teachers left their jobs this year – herself included. Each teacher has at least five years experience, but left for financial reasons. “There is a train crash on the horizon,” Richardson said. “With the proposed salary cuts, they can’t afford to have a family.”

The Idaho Statesman has a report here on the situation from reporter Bill Roberts.

Idaho ed spending still at the bottom

Idaho remains stuck at the bottom of public education funding, ranking second to last of all states in per-student spending for a third straight year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today; S-R reporter Scott Maben has a full report here. The latest census data showed Idaho spent $6,824 per student in the 2010-11 school year, above only Utah. Meanwhile, neighboring Washington ranked 30th – up two spots from the previous year – with $9,483 spent per student.

Both Idaho and Washington fell below the national average of $10,560 per student, and the average itself has dropped 0.4 percent from 2010. That’s the first decrease in per-student spending since the Census Bureau began collecting data in 1977.

Asked about the new figures today, Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said, “How much we spend per student is an important factor, but it’s not the only factor.” He said Idaho’s low ranking is influenced by demographics.  “There’s a reason that Idaho and Utah constantly end up at the bottom end … and it’s because we have large families,” Luna said, adding that he has six children. “We have fewer taxpayers per student in Idaho than we have in many other states.”

The 2000 Census found that Utah had the highest number of children under 18 per family, followed by Alaska at second-highest, Idaho third, and California fourth. However, Alaska ranked third-highest for per-student spending in the latest Census report; California was 36th.

While acknowledging that Idaho’s school funding per student compares poorly to other states, Luna said, “What I measure our system against isn’t how much are we spending per student – it’s are we getting the results?” Currently, he said, the answer is no – too few Idaho students go on to college or other higher education after high school. He said that means Idaho needs reforms for its schools.

Judge takes issues under advisement in school fees lawsuit

As the grandfather of a Meridian High School student, Russell Joki submitted $85 in student fees at the start of the school year, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. Does that give Joki, a former Nampa school superintendent, standing to file a class-action lawsuit against 64 school districts? This was one of the issues debated — but not decided — in a Boise courtroom Monday afternoon, Richert reports; you can read his full report here. Judge Richard Greenwood took the issues under advisement, and gave no indication of when he would rule; among the other pending issues is whether to reconsider dismissing the state as a defendant.

School lawsuit heads to court today

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of student fees charged by public schools in Idaho heads back to a Boise courtroom this afternoon, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. District Judge Richard Greenwood dismissed the state as a defendant in the case last month, but the lawsuit continues against Idaho school districts. Lead plaintiff Russ Joki offered to put the case on hold if the parties agreed to mediation, but there was no agreement. Now, arguments on several points in the case, including bring the state back into the lawsuit and class-action status, will be heard in Greenwood’s courtroom this afternoon; you can read Richert’s full post here.

Judge dismisses state from school fees lawsuit

A state judge has agreed to dismiss the state from a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the fees many public schools charge for classes and the legality of Idaho's overall education funding system, the AP reports. Ruling from the bench, 4th District Judge Richard Greenwood sided with lawyers from the Attorney General's office, finding that an existing statute protects the state from being involved at this point in the case; the case will continue with Idaho school districts as the defendants. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

Court brief asks judge to rule that Idaho’s school funding system is still unconstitutional

In the latest twist in an ongoing lawsuit over whether Idaho's school funding is adequate and constitutional, the ACLU of Idaho has filed a brief asking a judge to find that the state's method of paying for schools is still as unconstitutional as the Idaho Supreme Court found it to be back in 2005. The orgzniation contends the court shouldn't allow the Legislature to “avoid its duty” in the school funding case; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Albertson Foundation threatens to withhold $4.5M in program funding

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation is threatening to withhold $4.5 million it's promised to Idaho next year for a computer program to track student progress. The foundation in Boise says the money now won't be paid unless Idaho restores taxpayer funding for teacher professional development — money put in jeopardy when voters rejected public schools chief Tom Luna's Students Come First overhaul Nov. 6. The Albertson Foundation promised $21 million in 2011 for student-performance-monitoring software from SchoolNet Inc., a New York company. According to a letter from the foundation to Idaho budget writers, however, the final $4.5 million won't be paid “unless the professional development funds are secured.” Melissa McGrath, Luna's spokeswoman, said Friday he'll announce a remedy for the potential loss of funding next week.

School lawsuit hearing reset to March

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A pre-trial hearing on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of fees public schools charge for sports and other activities has been reset. On Thursday, 4th District Judge Lynn Norton scheduled a hearing for March 13 on a motion by the state to dismiss the lawsuit filed by former Nampa school superintendent Russell Joki. Joki contends that fees assessed for classes, supplies and activities violate Idaho's constitutional promise of a free public education. The lawsuit names The Department of Education, the Idaho Legislature and all 115 of Idaho's public school districts. But logistical snags are bogging down the case. For now, the biggest hurdle is getting the lawsuit served to all of the school districts.Norton said it's not fair to move forward until each district has a chance to respond.

Idaho school funding back in spotlight

Last week, Gov. Butch Otter told a crowd of more than 400 people that Idaho is “probably not” meeting the state Constitution's requirements to provide for education. The implications of that are serious: The state currently is being sued over the issue. “I would say we're probably not, but we're doing the best job that we can, and we're going to continue to do the best job that we can,” the governor said.

Asking the question of the governor was his former longtime chief economist, Mike Ferguson, who now heads the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. Ferguson has sent out an op-ed piece to Idaho newspapers, headed, “Election Over, Now It's Time To Focus On Resources,” exploring the issue of school funding in the wake of the failure of the school reform propositions on the November ballot. “Two critically important issues need to be factored into this discussion: How much of our financial resources are we devoting to the education of our children, and how are we allocating those resources among those children?” Ferguson asks.

His conclusion to the first question is that the Idaho is spending less and less on public education, falling from 4.4 percent of personal income in 2000 to 3.5 percent this year - a 20 percent decline. He also raises questions about the distribution of Idaho's state school funds with regard to equity; click below to read his full article. You can read my Sunday column here at spokesman.com.

Judge to hear arguments in January in school funding case

A judge will hear arguments early next year on whether Idaho's school fees are unconstitutional, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone. The lawsuit, from former Nampa school district superintendent Russ Joki and a group of parents and grandparents, contends that Idaho's schools are charging fees that violate the state Constitution's guarantee of a free public education. A judge will hear arguments Jan. 10 on Joki's motion for a summary judgment; he's also filed reports from two experts backing his claims, saying Idaho's school funding has sharply declined over the last 25 years, worsening problems that prompted the state's school funding system to be declared unconstitutional in 2005. “If the Legislature's system of funding was unconstitutional in 1999, as found by the Supreme Court in 2005, it is even more so today,” one of the reports states. Click below for Boone's full article.

School fee lawsuit expands, questions Idaho’s school funding system

A lawsuit charging that Idaho schools are violating the state Constitution by charging fees has expanded to include wider school-funding issues at the heart of a long-running lawsuit that prompted the state's school funding system to be ruled unconstitutional in 2005 by the Idaho Supreme Court, the AP reports. An amended complaint in the fee lawsuit adds a second cause of action, charging that state lawmakers have ignored the 2005 Idaho Supreme Court ruling.

Deputy Attorney General Mike Gilmore told AP reporter Rebecca Boone, “There have been changes. The issue now is whether enough has changed, and that's why there's a lawsuit.” Robert Huntley, attorney for the parents and students bringing the lawsuit, said the public should be “ashamed and alarmed” at the continuing deficiencies in Idaho's school funding system. Click below to read Boone's full report.

Idaho school fees, supply lists challenged as unconstitutional

An Idaho grandfather and former school district superintendent is suing the state of Idaho and all its school districts, charging that cash-strapped schools are violating the Idaho Constitution by increasingly charging fees for what are supposed to be “free, common schools.” Russ Joki's twin kindergartner granddaughters were each charged $45 to register for kindergarten this year, and his grandson, a high school junior, had to pay $85 in fees to enroll at Meridian High. But a 1970 Idaho Supreme Court decision specifically found educational fees for public schools unconstitutional in the state. “I don't think it passes the constitutional test at all,” Joki said, “and I think someone has to raise that question.”

His lawsuit was filed today in 4th District Court in Ada County; it seeks class-action status on behalf of all schoolchildren and parents in the state of Idaho. In addition to Joki, plaintiffs include his grandson, for whom he is legal guardian; his daughter and her twin 5-year-olds; and 15 other individuals from around the state, all grandparents of Idaho public school students.

In addition to charging fees, Joki's lawsuit targets Idaho schools' practice of distributing lists of specific school supplies for parents to purchase, from specific brands of colored pencils and crayons to reams of paper, boxes of tissue and dry-erase markers. “It's occurring statewide,” Joki said. “These supply lists are a substitute for essential educational materials that the district needs to provide. Instead, the burden has been placed on parents and patrons.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Cash-strapped school district turns to volunteers for substitute teachers

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― A school district in southwestern Idaho is allowing the use of community volunteers as substitute teachers to help offset a $2.8 million budget shortfall. The Idaho Press-Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/PrAfEP) the Nampa School District approved the new policy Tuesday. District officials have reduced funding for substitute teachers to help cover the shortfall and say that while there is still some money available, it's not enough to meet all of their needs this year. That is where the volunteers come in. District human resource officer Steve Kipp says volunteers will have to pass a background check, undergo drug testing and sign a contract outlining their duties. They will not, however, have to complete an online training course required of paid substitutes. The lack of that requirement has raised concerns with the Nampa Education Association.

Idaho’s Ed Dept. disputes national study showing big drop in school funding in state

Idaho's state Department of Education is disputing a national study that showed Idaho's per-pupil education funding has dropped by 19 percent since 2008, the fourth-biggest drop in the nation. StateImpact Idaho reports today that the department takes issue with the study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, saying its own figures show Idaho's per-pupil spending fell just under 12 percent from 2008 to 2011. Among the differences in the figures: The national study, which examined all 50 states, looks at a longer time period and adjusts the numbers for inflation. You can read StateImpact's full report here.

Luna calls for 5% budget boost for schools next year, decries ballot measures

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna released his budget request today for the state's schools for next year, calling for a 5.1 percent, $64 million increase in state funding. Luna said he met with stakeholder groups over the summer, including the Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho Association of School Administrators, Idaho Education Association, Idaho Association of School Business Officials and others, to formulate the request; it reflects some of those groups' common priorities, he said, including “backfilling” the 1.67 percent cut in salary funds for teachers and administrators that was imposed in 2011 under the “Students Come First” school reform laws. Restoring that funding next year would mean a $14.8 million increase in base salaries for Idaho teachers, administrators and classified staff from this year's level, Luna said; those base salaries still would remain below 2009 levels, however.

Luna emphasized that the budget proposal fully funds all the reform programs under “Students Come First,” including a $61 million teacher merit-pay bonus program, up from $38.8 million this year, and phasing in laptop computers for all high school students. Under the plan, teachers are to get the computers this fall; the first third of Idaho high school students would get them in the fall of 2013.

The budget request also calls for “unfreezing” one of two years on the state's teacher salary pay grid to provide scheduled increases for teachers who have additional years of experience; that change would cost $6.2 million. Luna said he hopes to remove the other frozen experience step on the grid the following year. He's also proposing a 2 percent increase in discretionary funds to school districts; and small increases in the current level of funding for information technology staff at school districts and for remediation for students falling behind.

Luna held a roundtable meeting with reporters to release the budget request, which now goes to Gov. Butch Otter. But he said it would all change if voters in November reject the “Students Come First” laws by passing three referenda, Propositions 1, 2 and 3. If the measures fail, he said, “Until the Legislature comes to town, we'd have no legal authority to distribute those funds.”

Luna hasn't formulated an alternate plan on how to proceed if the reforms are overturned, which would redirect the money for merit-pay bonuses, laptops and other “Students Come First” programs; that money still could only be spent on education. Luna suggested asking opponents of the reform laws, who collected more than 70,000 signatures to place the three measures on the ballot. “I'm very curious as to what their plan is for managing this disruption,” he said. “We've made it very clear in the past that you cannot cut school budgets in the middle of the school year, and that's what this amounts to.” You can see Luna's full budget request here; click below to read his news release.
  

Most school levies pass around state

Most of the school tax levy measures on the ballot yesterday appear to have passed, with all three Kootenai County school districts approving theirs - including a 13-year, $32.7 million bond levy in Coeur d'Alene - and levies in Treasure Valley districts including Kuna, Nampa, Homedale, Notus and Wilder all passing. Potlatch voters were 67 percent in favor of their district's $1.3 million levy to save school programs, electives, sports and teachers' jobs, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reports, after a similar measure failed in May. An attempted recall of a school board member in Bingham County failed.

In Caribou County, a $5 million bond in the North Gem School District reportedly failed, coming just two votes short of meeting the two-thirds supermajority requirement. Power and Cassia county voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.8 million supplemental levy for the American Falls school district. Buhl voters also approved a supplemental levy, after two earlier tries failed narrowly.

Voters head to polls in 20 Idaho school districts today, most on whether to hike local tax funding for schools

It's election day in 20 school districts across Idaho, as voters head to the polls to decide on school funding measures from a $1.6 million levy in Nampa to fund textbooks and building repairs; to a $3.19 million levy in Kuna to head off 25 teacher layoffs; to a 13-year, $32.7 million bond levy in Coeur d'Alene to fund major building renovations at schools throughout the district. School districts with elections today range from Kootenai, Bonner and Benewah counties to Canyon, Twin Falls, Caribou and Cassia counties; voters are heading to the polls from Buhl to Potlatch, and from Rathdrum to American Falls, which has a bond levy on the ballot. Bingham County has a recall election for a school board member.

In all, 20 districts in 14 counties are holding elections today, all but Bingham to consider funding increases through property taxes.

No increase in endowment funds for Idaho’s public schools next year…

Idaho's state Land Board has voted unanimously to approve a recommendation from the state's Endowment Fund Investment Board for no increase in the distribution from the state endowment to public schools next year, holding schools at their current annual distribution level of $31.3 million. Larry Johnson, investment manager for the endowment fund, said the board recommended a 2.8 percent increase in total distributions from the endowment, based on earnings, but no increase for public schools and one other beneficiary, normal school, because their reserves are not yet at the target level, which is enough to cover five years' worth of distributions.

The board also recommended that $7.9 million from earnings reserves for six endowments be transferred into their permanent funds on Sept. 1, because those endowments, which include penitentiary and university, now have more than five years worth of distributions in their reserves. “The recommended distributions and transfers appear to be achievable and represent an appropriate balance between the interests of current and future beneficiaries, taking into account the current level of earnings reserves and expected future fund revenues,” Johnson said in his report to the Land Board.

The Idaho Constitution requires the state's endowment to be managed for maximum long-term returns to the beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state's public schools. With no discussion, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden moved to approve the recommendation, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna wasn't at the meeting; he's out of state.

Idaho school funding again ranks 50th in nation

Idaho's school spending per pupil ranks 50th in the nation for a second straight year, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census, while Washington's is 32nd, one place worst than last year's ranking of 31st. Washington education officials bemoaned the ranking as too low, but Idaho's said their lower ranking wasn't particularly concerning; Idaho bested only Utah.

“Funding is a factor in education but it’s not the most important factor,” said Idaho State Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath, “and it is not the factor that determines the quality of an education system.” She noted that Idaho - like Washington - has higher than average student test scores. The U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progess shows eighth-graders in both states scored above average in reading, math and science in 2011. “In Idaho, our state spends less per student compared to most other states, but our students continually outperform students across the United States in reading, math and in science,” McGrath said. “It’s clear that Idaho is doing well spending its resources effectively and efficiently to benefit Idaho students.”

The census figures, which are drawn from the 2009-2010 school year, also include rankings for school spending per $1,000 in per-capita income for each state. By that measure, Idaho improved slightly from last year's ranking of 41st, coming in 38th. But it's still far below where the state ranked back in 2001, when it was 17th. Former Idaho state chief economist Mike Ferguson, now the head of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, said that echoes a report he released in April that found that the share of Idaho's personal income that goes to schools dropped 23 percent from 2000 to 2013; his report dubbed that drop “a stunning reduction in the state's commitment to public schools.” Ferguson said Wednesday, “The fact is that we've been essentially disinvesting in children.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Report: Idaho’s school funding system is trending toward violating state Constitution

Idaho's former longtime chief state economist, Mike Ferguson, has released a 20-page report on public school funding that reaches a series of startling conclusions: Public school funding, as a share of total state spending, has dropped dramatically since 2000. Even as state lawmakers in 2006 eliminated the key property tax levy for school operations while raising the state's sales tax by a penny, schools that saw decreasing state funding have turned increasingly to property tax levies, which, unlike the levy eliminated in 2006, are no longer “equalized” with state funding and accentuate disparities in wealth among the state's school districts. The result: Idaho's current school funding system may be violating two key provisions of the state Constitution, requiring the Legislature to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” and requiring taxes to be imposed uniformly. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“Actions that drive local school districts into making dramatic increases in the use of local property tax resources … raise serious doubt that the Legislature is fulfilling its Constitutional obligations,” Ferguson wrote. “It is probably not realistic to expect a quick fix. It is reasonable to expect an open and honest discussion of the direction of Idaho's public school funding, and whether it is living up to the duties and responsibilities handed down by Idaho's founding fathers. Hopefully this report will contribute to that discussion.”

You can read the full report here; it explores Idaho's public school funding from 1980 to 2013. Among the figures revealed by its analysis: Idaho spent 34 percent of its state spending on public schools, on average, in the 1980s and 1990s; that had dropped to 26 percent by fiscal year 2012. The share of Idaho's personal income that went to schools - which Ferguson describes as Idaho's “funding effort” for schools, or “the share of our aggregate income invested in our children,” dropped from a steady 4.4 percent average in the '80s and '90s, and 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2000, to 3.5 percent in fiscal 2012; in the governor's executive budget for 2013, it fell to 3.4 percent. Ferguson noted that's a 23 percent decline, a change he called “a stunning reduction in the state's commitment to public schools.”

And more than two-thirds of Idaho's school districts now have supplemental property tax levies, which are voter-approved local taxes that raise sharply varying amounts from one district to the next, depending on the local tax base. Even after the elimination of the major operations levy in 2006, “Considerable amounts of public school funding are still derived from property taxes, and the relative share is once again increasing,” he wrote.

Ferguson is now director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a non-profit, non-partisan grant-funded organization whose mission is “to provide Idaho citizens and elected officials with fact-based information and analysis they can use to make informed public policy decisions.”
  

Flu impacts Idaho schools

Idaho education officials are bracing for a raft of waiver requests from school districts that have seen student attendance suffer from the flu - and don’t want the drop in attendance to hurt their district’s state funding. Idaho bases its funding allocation to districts for the first half of the year on average daily attendance reports for the first seven weeks of school - the very time when the H1N1 flu, in many cases, has dramatically impacted school attendance. That attendance report also affects school staffing levels for the year.

“We did spike about a week ago - we had a couple schools that had up to 25 and 30 percent absentee,” said Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Hazel Bauman. Attendance is now back up, she said, but “it has reached that threshold … We will be submitting a request for a waiver.” So will Post Falls, Lakeland, and Meridian schools and many more. Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Education, said such waiver requests normally are very rare. The department typically receives only about one a year, usually driven by an early snow day or some such unusual event. This year, however, it’s already received one request, from the South Lemhi School District in eastern Idaho (for a “significant drop in attendance as a result of the flu” for two weeks in October), and it’s heard from many more than have them in the works. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.