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As school starts, districts mull which cuts to restore thanks to federal aid…

Canceling unpaid furloughs for teachers and other school employees, reversing layoff decisions and adding back school days are among the plans being mulled by North Idaho school districts for their share of the last-minute federal jobs bill money, which is arriving just as school starts. In Coeur d’Alene, reinstating the planned six unpaid furlough days will take up $1.2 million of the district’s $1.8 million share.

The federal aid was welcome news after Idaho lawmakers cut an unprecedented $128 million from the state’s public school budget this year – 7.5 percent – and declared a statewide financial emergency to allow school districts to reopen negotiated teacher contracts and cut pay and benefits. The money could allow districts to reverse up to 40 percent of those cuts, but if they follow the governor’s advice and spread the money over two years, the impact could be less. Read our full story here at spokesman.com.

Dems react to federal ed funds

Yesterday Gov. Butch Otter announced that Idaho will qualify for $51.6 million in federal aid for its ailing schools, and said he’ll apply for the funds, and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna hailed Otter’s decision in a statement posted here yesterday. Later the same day, Democratic candidate for governor Keith Allred issued a statement saying the decision to apply for the federal funds was a sign that Otter had failed the schools this year; “Otter cut education so severely that even taking the big federal bailout won’t keep our schools whole,” he said. And legislative Democrats sent out a statement urging Otter and Luna to quickly distribute the money to schools to make up the “dramatic and unprecedented cuts that have occurred under Republican leadership in recent years.” Click below to read both their statements.

Land Board sets school distribution for 2012

Idaho’s state Land Board has voted unanimously to set distributions from the state’s permanent endowment to public schools and other endowment beneficiaries for next year at this year’s level, less the special, one-time extra distribution of $22 million to public schools this year. That means overall distributions will be down 32 percent and public school distributions will be down 41.3 percent, dropping from a total of $53.3 million this year to $31.3 million next year. But if you set aside the special $22 million allocation this year, the total distributions actually rise by 0.6 percent.

Gov. Butch Otter asked Larry Johnson, manager of investments for the endowment fund, “Is there any way we can measure the effect of taking that $22 million out? I mean, for historical purposes - we’ve done it. … If we’re tracking it we can look back on it in years to come … know what our overall cost is.” Johnson replied that that will depend on the endowment fund’s earnings. For example, if the fund earns 15 percent, the cost would be 15 percent of $22 million. If the fund were flat, the cost would be zero. Said Otter, “I just think it would be valuable for us to know … what the effect of that was, should we ever be faced with that situation again.”

Johnson submitted pages of charts and analysis from the Endowment Fund Investment Board to the Land Board showing that holding the distributions even, but for the $22 million, would be “prudent” given the various endowment funds’ earnings. Continuing the $22 million in fiscal year 2012, however, would not, he said. In four of the endowments - not the major one, which is for public schools - earnings have actually built up beyond five years’ worth of distributions in the reserve funds, and the investment board recommended a transfer from those funds back into the permanent fund, as prescribed by its investment plan. “The recommended distributions and transfers appear to be achievable and represent an appropriate balance between the interests of current and future beneficiaries,” said the report from the endowment board.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden made a motion to approve the recommendation, Controller Donna Jones seconded the motion, and the vote was unanimous - including from state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who was participating by phone. Luna, who pushed for the $22 million extra distribution for schools this year - and who actually wanted twice that amount - made no comment this time. Idaho’s endowment fund had a 5 percent gain in July, the first month of the fiscal year.

Idaho will apply for fed school aid

Idaho will qualify for $51.6 million in aid to its hard-hit public schools under the new federal jobs bill, and Gov. Butch Otter has announced that he’ll apply for the money, a decision welcomed by state schools Supt. Tom Luna. Click below to read Otter’s full news release.

Luna: Schools need 9% more next year

State schools Supt. Tom Luna says Idaho’s public schools need a 9.2 percent increase in state general funds next year, just to keep even and fund student growth. In a budget request for fiscal year 2011 that Luna’s scheduled to present to the state Board of Education on Thursday, he calls for a $1.34 billion general fund appropriation for public schools next year, $1.73 billion in total funds. That’s up from $1.23 billion in general funds this year - the first year that Idaho’s schools have taken a cut in state funds from what they received the year before. This year’s school budget, in state funds, was 7.7 percent below last year’s $1.33 billion level.

In his submission for Thursday’s state board meeting, Luna said his budget request for next year would require a $112.7 million increase in general funds to replace federal stimulus money that helped prop up this year’s school budget, and to fund growth. He’s also calling for a $28.1 million appropriation from the state’s Public Education Stabilization Fund to finish closing that gap. In total funds - including federal stimulus money, some of which was targeted to specific programs - this year’s school budget was set at $1.71 billion.

New school bond fees draw fire

For nearly a decade, Idaho has offered to guarantee bonds issued by its local school districts to win them a better interest rate, save local property taxpayers a few dollars and make the bonds easier to pass. Now, the state Endowment Board has decided to start charging fees to school districts that participate in the program - up to $1,000 for an application fee, plus up to 5 basis points, which adds up to about $15,000 for a typical $20 million bond issue. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna is vehemently opposed to the new fees, and says he’ll fight to reverse them in the upcoming 2010 legislative session; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

School districts declare financial emergencies

At least a dozen Idaho school districts have declared financial emergencies under a new state law, and more are considering the move as they face their first-ever cut in state funding for schools next year. “There’s no money, so what can you do?” asked Ryan Kerby, superintendent of the New Plymouth School District in southwestern Idaho. In Bonner County, West Bonner Schools Superintendent Mike McGuire said he’s already cut a quarter-million dollars from next year’s budget, and it still hasn’t made up the shortfall. “We aren’t going to have a high school assistant principal next year in a high school of 400-plus students - that wasn’t a luxury,” he said. “We’ve made, I think, some pretty serious reductions throughout the district. We just don’t have anyplace else to look.”

The new financial emergency law lets a school district reopen teacher contracts, to negotiate possible adjustments in pay, hours or contract length. It allows temporary suspension of a state law that requires teachers to be paid at least what they were the previous year. West Bonner and Boundary County school districts already have made the declarations; Coeur d’Alene and Rathdrum schools are seriously considering it. Tom Taggart, business manager for the Lakeland School District in Rathdrum, said, “There’s a lot of potential risks with moving ahead with it, but it’s one of the few tools we have.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.