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News >  Idaho

School funding focus of race

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – The two candidates vying to become Idaho’s next state superintendent of schools have opposite reactions to the Legislature’s major changes in school funding enacted at a special session a week ago – and opposite ideas of what should happen next.

Democrat Jana Jones, the current chief deputy superintendent, decried the changes, saying Idaho has lost the foundation of its public school budget. The Legislature now needs to take action to dedicate funding to schools in the future, she said – and she backs Proposition 1 on the November ballot, which would require a $210 million-a-year increase in school funding.

Republican Tom Luna, a Nampa businessman and former Bush administration education official, endorsed and lobbied for the tax reform legislation, pushed lawmakers to enact it, and announced afterward that with its passage, he’s now decided to oppose Proposition 1. Luna said the ballot initiative identifies no funding source for its required boost in the school budget. He said if elected he’d propose a budget to the Legislature that would shift more of current school funding into classrooms, plus increase overall funding.

When lawmakers endorsed Gov. Jim Risch’s tax reform legislation, they raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, and eliminated a $260 million-a-year property tax levy that paid for basic school operations. The legislation calls for making up the lost school funding with a combination of state general funds, which include the new sales tax proceeds, and $50 million from the state’s budget surplus. It also calls for setting aside $100 million from the surplus in a savings account for schools, to hedge against future state revenue downturns.

Proposition 1 also would have raised the sales tax a penny – but it states that if lawmakers already have raised the sales tax to 6 percent, they’d have to identify other sources for its required school-funding increase.

Luna waited to take a position on Proposition 1 until after the Legislature’s special session on the tax reform plan. “To me, the need for property tax relief, which is absolutely essential, and Proposition 1 are separate issues,” he said. “I never viewed them as competing.”

Jones said Proposition 1 seeks to increase school funding, while the tax reform legislation simply shifts the state budget around – and in the process, eliminates the only major funding source for schools that wasn’t allowed to be spent on anything else.

“The maintenance and operation budget received through property taxes was the foundation of the public school budget in Idaho,” Jones said. “It was … the only funding source dedicated to our schools. The shift to a penny increase in sales tax does not dedicate those funds to public schools – we lost our foundation.”

Jones is calling for lawmakers to take action to dedicate specific funding to public schools each year, rather than just letting schools compete for all their funds with other state programs like corrections and Medicaid. “Our local school boards need to be able to count on sustained funding so they can make viable decisions for their schools,” she said.

Proposition 1 would require the additional money for schools to be handed over to local districts for any of nine specific purposes, including textbooks and classroom supplies, teacher pay and training, replacing broken or outdated classroom computers, school building maintenance, aides, and restoring programs that have been cut.

Both candidates agree that if Idaho were simply to replace the lost property tax funding for schools with state funds, that wouldn’t constitute an increase for schools, even though more money would come from the state general fund.

“You won’t see that argument from me,” Luna said. “I won’t buy into that. Any legislator has been wrong that has portrayed that as an increase to public education.”

Jones said that when the superintendent proposes next year’s public school budget, it will have to be 20 percent higher in state general funds just to cover the loss from property taxes. At the same time, she said, “More and more is being asked of public schools. … We’re 46th in the nation in what we spend per pupil in public education in Idaho, and what we’re getting is not an increase. … It’s just to maintain where we are right now.”

Luna said Idaho should spend more on teacher pay, textbooks, supplies and classroom activities. But he said the list included in Proposition 1 is “not specific enough.”

He said he’s working with educators and others to formulate a budget “that we’ll roll out at the right time, that will be different than what we’ve done in the past – because the status quo is not solving these issues that have plagued public education for so long. My budget will not be a status quo budget.”

Jones said she wants commitments now and during the upcoming legislative session that Idaho will protect and increase education funding, ensure safe school buildings, preserve local control for school districts, and increase teacher pay enough to attract and keep good teachers.

Luna called the $100 million rainy-day fund for schools in the tax reform legislation a “huge commitment to education.”

Jones warned, however, that schools won’t be able to access that money unless there are shortfalls in funds already budgeted for schools by the state.

“Then and only then can the state flow those dollars to schools,” she said.

The election is Nov. 7.

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