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More state money for Idaho schools, teacher raises: Is what was promised being delivered?

A teacher at Highlands Elementary School in Boise conducts a lesson. Boise School District teachers will receive 6.5% raises next school year. Statewide, hundreds of millions in additional public school funds approved by the Idaho Legislature hinges on student attendance next year.  (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)
By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Teachers in and around Boise are getting raises next school year, thanks to significant increases in public school funding pushed by Idaho Gov. Brad Little and approved by the Legislature.

But schools across the state might get less money than advertised when the governor and lawmakers set aside $330 million for K-12 schools. That’s because a temporary funding mechanism, enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic to stabilize school budgets, is set to expire this month.

Education advocates are calling on policymakers to make the funding formula change permanent, but that’s unlikely.

In the meantime, as districts set budgets and negotiate teacher contracts for next year, school leaders are tempering expectations, not long after state officials’ highly publicized investments in education and promises of teacher raises.

In Kuna, extended teacher negotiations in recent weeks sought to use increased state funds to bolster teacher retention efforts and reward long-serving teachers, Neva Noe told school board members Tuesday. Noe, a middle school teacher, helped negotiate a contract with the Kuna School District.

Negotiators also had to “tackle the problem” of the governor’s announcement that Idaho teachers would get $6,359 raises, Noe said.

“We had our interests, but then we coupled that with that announcement,” Noe told the trustees. “We had a huge task.”

The Kuna school board approved a negotiated contract that will give teachers a minimum $3,550 annual raise – altogether 7% average pay hikes across the board. West Ada School District teachers will get $5,000 raises on average – about 9% per teacher – and Boise School District teachers will receive 6.5% raises.

This year, the Legislature approved Little’s recommendation to infuse $145 million in the career ladder, the state’s uniform teacher salary system. But school districts often hire more teachers than the state provides funding for, and school finance officers have some discretion to distribute the funds. That means teacher raises will look different in each district.

An added wrinkle is the upcoming reversion to attendance-based school funding. Idaho is among a handful of states that funds schools based on attendance. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the Idaho State Board of Education enacted a temporary rule allowing enrollment-based funding, which allowed schools to collect state money based on how many students were enrolled – not on how many attended.

The temporary rule stabilized school budgets as attendance dropped during the pandemic, but it’s expiring at the end of this month. Statewide, schools will still see significant funding increases, but an Idaho Department of Education report said the end of enrollment-based funding could mean the amount is over $100 million less than promised when lawmakers passed House Bill 1 last year, setting aside an additional $330 million for K-12 schools.

What that means for schools next year depends on attendance and how school leaders decide to budget for the funding formula reversion. School leaders in the Magic Valley are planning to cut positions or forgo teacher raises, the Twin Falls Times-News reported.

Reclaim Idaho, the citizen group that’s pushed state leaders to support Idaho’s chronically underfunded public school system, is calling on the governor to address the funding “shortfall.”

“If this issue goes unaddressed, school districts across the state will feel the impact,” a news release from the group stated. “Some districts will see layoffs of teachers and support staff. Others will be forced to increase class sizes, eliminate positions for counselors and librarians, or hold back promised salary increases.”

State budgeting, policy decisions a mixed bag for Idaho schools

Last year, Little called a special session of the Legislature to consider a bill that would cut income taxes and set aside $330 million for public schools.

At the time, voters were set to consider a ballot measure from Reclaim Idaho that would have increased public school funding by more than $320 million through higher income tax rates on wealthy Idahoans.

Little’s proposal, House Bill 1, instead increased sales tax distributions to schools and set a flat tax on all income levels. The Legislature overwhelmingly approved the proposal in September, and 80% of Idaho voters supported it through an advisory question on the November general election ballot. Reclaim Idaho pulled its ballot measure.

During this year’s session, the Legislature budgeted a $380 million increase to schools, including $145 million for teacher raises, or $6,359 per teacher on the career ladder. Lawmakers also passed House Bill 292 to subsidize about $117 million per year in property taxes across the state, which is meant to support school construction costs.

The property tax bill also eliminated March elections for school districts, the most successful time for public schools to pass bond and levy measures that pay for construction and operations when state funding falls short. And the enrollment-versus-attendance based formula issue went unaddressed.

State policymakers for years have considered switching to an enrollment-based formula. Last year, the Idaho School Boards Association passed a resolution in support of a permanent change, arguing the enrollment model “removes the uncertainty in revenue school districts and public charter schools budget for.”

“Unpredictable fluctuations in student attendance, especially during public health crises, can create unexpected and substantial reductions in the amount of funding individual school districts and public charter schools receive from the state when funding is based on average daily attendance,” according to the resolution.

In 2022, the Legislature passed a bill that would have continued enrollment-based funding through the upcoming school year, but Little vetoed it.

“Gov. Little believes education should be in-person and student-focused in order to improve student outcomes,” Little’s spokesperson, Madison Hardy, told the Idaho Statesman by email. “We will continue to monitor efforts to improve school attendance to pre-pandemic levels and will make any necessary adjustments in collaboration with the Legislature, education leaders and stakeholders.”

The Legislature didn’t pass a similar bill this year. Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, co-chair of the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriation Committee, said there was a proposal to lay out a framework for enrollment-based funding, but lawmakers couldn’t agree with education lobbyists.

“We all know it’s time to modernize our school funding formula, make it less prescriptive, increase local control, so the state’s not bossing the school districts around about where and how much money to spend,” Horman said.

The State Board has the authority to extend the enrollment-based funding rule. The group in April extended the rule through June 30 and acknowledged that moving back to attendance-based funding could decrease public school funding by more than $100 million in 2023-24.

Prior to the pandemic, 95% of students attended school on any given day, while three years later attendance sits at about 80% to 85%, a news release from the State Board said. But the group is deferring to the Legislature on future decisions about the funding formula.

“There is not legislative support to continue using enrollment, rather than attendance, to calculate funding for public schools,” Matt Freeman, executive director of the State Board, told the Statesman by email.

“Therefore, the State Board will not take up consideration of another temporary rule to use enrollment for the 2023-2024 school year.”

Funding hinges on attendance in school year

The West Ada School District, which covers Meridian, Eagle and the western part of Boise, might have seen a $45 million increase in funding next year resulting from the state’s $380 million public school investment, but the switch back to attendance-based funding is “muting” the positive impact, Jonathan Gillen, the district’s chief financial officer, told school board trustees last month.

West Ada – the state’s largest school district, responsible for about 12% of Idaho students – can still expect a $24 million boost, though, which is a 10% increase.

“We are grateful for the additional dollars we’ve received, don’t get me wrong,” Gillen said. “It’s fantastic, but some of that was adjusted downward based on just going from enrollment to attendance.”

The Department of Education compiled data showing an estimated $120 million difference between how much money schools would have received during the most recent school year if funding was calculated based on attendance as opposed to enrollment, according to the department’s communications director, Scot Graf.

Jared Tatro, a budget analyst for the Legislature, estimated public schools would receive an additional $215 million next year based on recent attendance trends. That would be an 11% spike statewide.

“The increased funding should more than cover the discussed ‘loss’ by moving back to” attendance-based funding, Tatro wrote in the widely circulated analysis.

Advocates with Reclaim Idaho, and House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, have noted that $215 million is far less than the state promised in HB1. Inaction on the funding formula means “a broken promise to our kids,” Necochea, who also chairs the Idaho Democratic Party, wrote in a recent column.

“While the nuances of school funding are complex, the bottom line is that schools deserve reliable, adequate funding,” Necochea wrote. “Without action, the positive effects of HB1 will be severely diminished and our promise to Idaho’s children will go unfulfilled.”

Horman said the estimate is inconclusive and represents a “worst-case scenario.” Attendance-based funding metrics – called support units, which essentially represent the cost to staff a classroom – are worth more than enrollment-based units. That means school districts can recoup losses associated with the funding formula reversion if attendance rebounds to prepandemic levels.

“We won’t know what attendance is going to be until school starts in the fall,” Horman said. “Hopefully, now that we’re postpandemic, it’s going to improve.”