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Eye on Boise: If voters say no to school reforms …

BOISE – There’s a what-if question being debated in Idaho politics that matters quite a bit: What if voters in November reject Propositions 1, 2 and 3, repealing state Superintendent Tom Luna’s Students Come First school reform laws?

The laws, passed in 2011, already are being phased in. If voters opt to repeal them in the referendum vote, that would stop.

The laws rolled back teachers’ collective bargaining rights, imposed a new merit-pay bonus system, and called for providing a laptop computer for every Idaho high school student and a new focus on online learning, among other changes.

The first laptops are to be distributed this fall to teachers, with the first third of high school students getting them next fall. This year’s public school budget includes $38.8 million for the merit-pay bonuses for teachers, $13.6 million for technology and more than $2.5 million for laptops.

Luna, who unveiled his budget request for the 2013-’14 school year last week, said he had no alternative proposal if the measures are voted down and decried the push as posing a major midyear disruption for schools.

“We did not write these laws based on a referendum,” Luna said. “Now the opponents want to bring this to a screeching halt.”

In 2011, when opponents began gathering signatures for repeal of the new laws, legislators pushed through three follow-up bills so that they’d take effect right away. Otherwise, the laws would have been put on hold until after the 2012 referendum vote.

If they’re repealed now, they’d undo a reform package that’s already being put into effect.

Luna suggested asking opponents of the reform laws about that. “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.”

Here’s how the process would work: If the three measures are defeated, much of the $60.5 million now tabbed for laptop computers, teacher merit-pay bonuses, tech upgrades and other Students Come First reforms would sit unallocated within the public school budget. Some would be used to reinstate programs the laws eliminated, such as a 99 percent funding “floor” for school districts that lose large numbers of students from one year to the next, and a $14.8 million allocation to teacher and administrator salaries. If lawmakers took no further action, the remaining money, roughly $33 million, would flow into Idaho’s public education stabilization fund, a state savings account for schools, at the end of the school year.

But when the Legislature convenes in January, it could redirect those funds through a supplemental appropriation rather than just let them sit all year. If lawmakers sent the money out as discretionary funds to school districts, districts would decide how to spend it. The portion of Idaho’s public school budget that goes out to districts as discretionary funds has been sharply cut in recent years.

Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee, asked about the process, said: “They could do that. They could put it into salaries. They could even take it out of the public schools budget and put it somewhere else in the state budget.”

Mike Lanza, chairman of Vote No on Propositions 1, 2, 3, the group urging repeal of the Students Come First school reform laws, said: “Consistent with what we’ve said all along, we want to see control of local schools returned to local school boards and educators. So the money that has been appropriated for public schools should rightly go to public schools, but without those strings attached. Our schools need those resources. They’ve been shortchanged for too many years.”

Luna said he thought opponents should have proposed alternatives or changes to the reform laws he championed rather than attempting to repeal them at the ballot box. “They chose to go at this with a meat ax and create such a disruption to our schools,” he said.

Lanza responded.

“It sounds to me like Superintendent Luna is complaining that it’s greatly inconvenient for him and his office that the people of Idaho have decided they want the final say on his laws,” he said. “His problem seems to be with the democratic process. There are many of us in the state, as evidenced by how many signatures we collected in a short time, who think that Tom Luna is the one who has created this disruption in the schools, and it’s already under way, and that we’re going to be better off once we repeal these laws.”

It’s an exchange that gives just a hint of how hot the debate will be between now and Nov. 6 over the school reform referenda. Both sides are gearing up for a fight.

With Republican nominee Mitt Romney all but guaranteed to carry Republican-dominated Idaho, the presidential race is far from the hottest thing on Idaho’s general election ballot – instead, it’s the school laws.

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