Idaho lawmakers set a public schools budget Wednesday with minor changes to the proposed plan with a $128 million, 7.5 percent spending reduction released last week. Salaries for teachers and other school staff would be reduced, as would money for bus transportation and some statewide education programs. The budget approved by lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) would zero out funding for some spending programs, including textbooks, classroom supplies, and technology upgrades, and give that money to local school districts to spend at their discretion. School districts will also get more flexibility in renegotiating with teachers due to difficult economic times. These reductions come as lawmakers expect an increasing number of students going to Idaho public schools. There will be an estimated 140 new classroom units in the next school year. The four Democrats on the 20-member committee voted against the budget proposals, saying more money from schools is needed.
“It’s all about the economy,” said JFAC co-chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. “The economy is the driving factor on this and the cuts in this budget reflect that.” Bell said it is the first time in Idaho history schools have seen an overall reduction. JFAC sets state spending for some education programs, including teacher salaries, but local school districts have discretionary state spending and some local tax dollars that could supplement some of the targeted reductions.
The budget set by JFAC comes from the lower revenue projections approved by JFAC in February, and subsequent meetings with education stakeholders, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, and leaders from state teacher, administrator, and school board groups. “What you find in these motions is a consolidation of the agreement, or concessions if you want to call it that,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, who was part of those meetings. “It was a give and take on everybody’s part.”
Teachers and other school staff would see a 4 percent base reduction to state funding for salaries and administrators a 6.5 percent reduction. The grid for pay increases based on experience and education would also be frozen for teachers. The minimum salary for teachers would drop below $30,000. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, attempted to keep it from going below that level. “This is a very important threshold at $30,000 that I would not want to go under,” he said. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said it could send the wrong message to new teachers. Bayer’s proposal ultimately failed.
JFAC co-chair Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said raising that minimum salary would lead to larger salary reductions for experienced teachers and upset the agreement with education leaders. “If you decide to bump it above $30,000, then it has a rippling effect,” he said.
Early retirement incentives for teachers also won’t go away. The schools budget would include $1 million for the program, which would give teachers an $18,000 bonus to retire early. The agreement to get rid of bonuses fell apart because of a side proposal that would have allowed teachers to retire up to five years early without a penalty on their retirement benefits. Cameron said the issue became too problematic due to recent issues with Public Employment Retiree System of Idaho (PERSI). “We can’t figure out how to make it work and how to figure out how to keep it from being politicized, so we’re reversing direction,” Cameron said.
Among other spending reductions, transportation would be reduced 10 percent, funding for field trips would be removed, and specific programs that Luna lobbied for would be reduced 20 percent. Those programs are the Idaho Math Initiative, Idaho Reading Initiative, and ISAT assessment remediation. The Idaho Digital Learning Academy’s funding would be capped at $5 million.
Lawmakers also tried to add flexibility by shifting money from some programs to local school districts. “This should be a substantial help to the local school districts in managing their operations,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene. With all the fund shifts, from programs like textbooks, classroom supplies, and technology, discretionary funding would decrease 13 percent.
Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, added a proposal to give schools more flexibility by declaring a statewide financial emergency for school districts. That move would give districts the ability to reopen contracts, including those with teachers over benefits and salaries. “None of us like the job that we have to do this year,” Wood said about the budget-setting process. He said reopening any contracts wouldn’t be required and would still require good-faith bargaining. “This is not mandating that anybody do anything. This is just saying that certain conditions are met.” The measure was approved on a 12-7 votes, with some Republicans on JFAC opposing the plan.
Democrats tried to approve a resolution to add $37 million to the discretionary funds headed to local districts. “We have to balance the budget but I feel like our hands have been tied,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who proposed the plan. “The Legislature, I think, has unduly restricted itself by refusing to consider other options. I really find it difficult to look at some of these budgets and know how they’re going to affect particularly our rural schools.” She said the funding could come from adding more auditors to the State Tax Commission and other programs that wouldn’t raise taxes.
“We talk about local control, but what we’re really doing is giving them local reduction,” said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello. “It really saddens me to see what we’re doing. I think there were other ways to bring in additional dollars for education.”
Republicans voted down the measure. Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said Ringo should bring up new revenue ideas in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, not JFAC. “This conversation is a conversation that doesn’t belong in this committee,” she said. She added that the Democrats’ proposals wouldn’t completely fill the $128 million reduction.
Both the House and Senate must now approve the public schools budgets. Cameron will speak with the Senate Education Committee Wednesday afternoon about the proposed budget. He said there are still some school spending issues that need to be resolved by other legislative committees, including allowing school districts to carryover some funding from the current school year to the next schools year and use money from property tax levies for day-to-day maintenance costs instead of facility improvements.