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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho lawmakers back big increase for schools

Joint Finance-Approprations Committee meets on Friday morning (Betsy Russell)
BOISE – Idaho lawmakers set a $1.48 billion public school budget on Friday, matching Gov. Butch Otter’s call for a 7.4 percent increase and fully funding the first year of a five-year plan to boost Idaho teachers’ salaries. Two Democrats on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee pushed for a larger boost, saying because of big growth in its student population, Idaho still isn’t boosting school funding back up to where it was in 2009. “No district ought to have a four-day week in the 21st century because of lack of funding,” said Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise. He and Rep. Phylis King proposed adding another $26.9 million to bring discretionary funding per classroom back up to 2009 levels. “Voters are supporting schools, but state funding still lags,” said King, D-Boise. But Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, argued that four-day weeks in schools aren’t all bad. “Although there are people that have concerns about that, also having one of those districts in my legislative district, the majority of the community has come to see some advantages to that for teachers and teacher preparation time, for students and the opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities,” she said. “And it really has ended up being embraced.” In 2007, Idaho had just 19 public schools across the state on four-day school weeks, according to Idaho Education News; today it has 54 in 14 school districts. Keough said the 7.4 percent increase is a “responsible” budget. The Democrats’ proposal would have meant a 9.3 percent increase in state funding for schools next year. “We clearly place a priority on our K-12 public system, and the original motion is clearly a substantial growth in the budget and recognizes … the priorities that we have,” Keough said. Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, called the budget that lawmakers set “sustainable.” A group of seven budget committee members, led by Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, crafted the budget to match Otter’s recommended increase – even though since he made his proposal, the state has discovered that projections were off, and it’ll likely have far more students next year, to the tune of 167 more “support units,” or roughly classrooms full of kids. There’s also an unexpected $6 million expense, because a program lawmakers authorized a year ago to pay for college classes for high school students has seen far more participation than expected. To make up the difference, the budget slows down the implementation of some of the proposals from the governor’s education improvement task force, recommending significantly smaller increases for professional development and classroom technology, though those areas still would see substantial increases. Horman complimented all who worked on the budget, including staff at the state Department of Education, who she said helped her examine details in every corner of the budget to identify funding options. As a result, she said, “We have been able to increase per-support-unit funding by $208 over the governor’s recommendation.” Idaho slashed school funding during the economic downturn; as a result, schools across the state have made big cuts and are reporting they can no longer recruit and keep teachers at the state’s low salaries. The budget set Friday includes $33.5 million for the first year of a five-year plan to boost pay for Idaho teachers at all levels. Idaho state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra praised the budget, though she’d sought a smaller increase of 6.4 percent. “This demonstrates what can be accomplished for Idaho students when great ideas are coupled with an environment of collaboration,” she said in a statement. Her chief deputy superintendent, Pete Koehler, said, “It has been a great legislative session for the children of Idaho.” The school budget, which covers kindergarten through 12th grade, is the single largest piece of Idaho’s state budget, comprising 48 percent of the state’s annual spending. The budget bill still needs approval from the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by the 20-member joint budget committee.