Our View, education: Funding still a core issue as Meridian talks resume

July 12, 2013 

The good news is the teachers union and Meridian School District administrators and trustees are talking again. The bad news is there is no good news to fix what all the stakeholders say they want beyond open lines of communication - plenty of fairly and competitively compensated teachers to do the business of educating kids in Idaho's largest school district.

Meridian trustees came out of executive session Tuesday to say they were going to resume talks with representatives of the Meridian Education Association after negotiations ended abruptly prior to a July 1 deadline to issue teacher contracts. They needed to reconnect with teachers. District staff and trustees must go every extra mile to be collaborative.

Attendees of Tuesday's meeting said there were air-clearing statements and comments such as this one from incoming Trustee Chair Anne Ritter, who also serves as president of the Idaho School Board Association: "Meridian has always valued its teachers. We rise and fall with the teachers' performance in the classroom."

We applaud all the parties for working things out so talks will continue, even though the caveat is that they will be unable to discuss monetary issues. District Superintendent Linda Clark's No. 1 reason for that is that there is no more money.

Luke Franklin, MEA president, spoke publicly on behalf of a shocked and dismayed body of teachers when talks ended July 1 after teacher contracts were finalized by the district. "We don't want to bankrupt our district," Franklin said, "but at the same time, there are several things I'd like to talk about that have nothing to do with money."

Elaborating, he mentioned class sizes, caseloads for special education teachers, and teacher preparation times. It is hard for us to believe these issues won't soon veer into monetary solutions - as in a need for more teachers. District officials will not be able to budge there, but they are open to requests to move some teacher issues out of district policy boilerplate and back into the teacher contracts per the union's request.

Meridian and numerous districts across the state share the prospect of continued fiscal vigilance and cuts because state funding to schools has diminished by $5,500 per "unit (classroom)" since 2009. In Meridian's case, that amounts to $10 million less in operational funding.

The people in the Meridian district - which includes portions of Boise, all of Meridian, Eagle, Star, a bit of Canyon County, portions of Garden City and unincorporated Ada County - deserve the state support and a level playing field. It is down 118 teachers from what the state allows. Some positions were lost to budget cuts and others were hired away to a higher-paying Boise district and other school systems.

Clark is hopeful that Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education will conclude that it needs to restore the operational funding.

Whether the Otter task force decides to recommend funding restoration or not, Clark is certain her district will have to ask for another supplemental levy like the $28 million one passed in March of 2012 that expires March 2014.

Education must become a greater priority for Idaho lawmakers. Failing that, we will support a new levy in Meridian and even a construction bond if necessary so children and teachers can concentrate more on education and less on survival. It will be up to the district to make the case to voters, but there is ample evidence.

The future will not fix itself.

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