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Eye on Boise: Opposing Idaho education reform views heard by joint committee

BOISE – A joint legislative committee tasked with looking at whether Idaho should keep three controversial – and temporary – teacher contract laws that lawmakers enacted this year got mixed messages when it met last week.

The Idaho Education Association requested that two of the three laws be allowed to expire: SB 1040a, allowing teachers’ pay and contract days to be reduced from one year to the next at a school district’s option, and SB 1147a, limiting contracts between school districts and teachers unions to one year only. They asked for some modifications to the third bill, HB 261, which governs teacher layoffs.

In contrast, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho School Administrators Association requested that the “sunset,” or expiration clause, be removed from all three bills, making them permanent. All the laws re-enact some provisions from the voter-repealed Students Come First reform laws, which rolled back teacher contract rights.

Paul Stark, general counsel for the IEA, said SB 1040a has been “abused,” and a dozen Pocatello teachers have seen their contract days cut without the requirements of the law even being followed. “We don’t believe that that’s how we should treat teachers,” he told the lawmakers. “Let us work on this, and we can find a better solution that fits everybody’s needs.”

But Anne Ritter, chair of the Meridian School Board and ISBA president, asked the lawmakers to drop the sunsets from all three bills, and also re-enact another controversial Students Come First provision allowing school districts to unilaterally impose contract terms if they haven’t reached contract agreements with teachers by a mid-June deadline. She said her district, the state’s largest, still hasn’t reached an agreement with its teachers and is facing a financial crunch that has forced teacher layoffs and large cuts in the number of school days.

“Districts have all made difficult decisions during these challenging financial times,” she told the Legislature’s K-12 Educational System Interim Committee. “We need the Legislature to revisit the contract laws to make it possible for school boards to plan appropriately and balance their budgets. … The financial condition of school districts around the state is really at risk.”

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’s concerned that Idaho school districts’ financial situation, and an increasing reliance on short-term supplemental tax levies, has made it difficult to evaluate data on how well the three temporary laws are working. “I don’t think that that’s a good environment to use to set policy,” he said. Goedde suggested considering another one-year extension to allow more examination of the three laws’ effects.

The joint legislative committee meets again in November and may meet in December as well; it’s due to report back to lawmakers, who convene their session in January.

New reforms pricey

State school Superintendent Tom Luna has not only endorsed “every one” of the 20 recommendations of an education stakeholders task force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, he’s built his budget request for public schools for next year to match them, including a request for a 5.9 percent, $77 million increase in state general funds. “Taken together, they will fundamentally transform our education system in Idaho for the better,” Luna said. “They’re all important.”

Luna said his budget reflects the first year of phasing the changes in over five to six years; similar increases likely would be needed each year.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s joint budget committee heard a presentation on the fiscal impacts of the reform proposals. “If the recommendations were implemented today, it’s a range of $346 million to $406 million,” legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee at its interim meeting in Pocatello. That would mean an increase in Idaho’s public school budget of between 26.5 and 31.1 percent, Headlee calculated.

Remembering Cenarrusa

More than 600 people filled St. John’s Cathedral in downtown Boise on Friday to remember former longtime Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, who died last Sunday at the age of 95. In a rare honor, Cenarrusa’s closed casket lay in state in the Capitol rotunda on Thursday. He was Idaho’s longest-serving elected official and, prior to becoming secretary of state, he served nine terms in the Idaho House including three as speaker. He was a prominent Idaho sheep rancher as well as a Basque-American leader known around the world.