Idaho may have to pay more to fix education

broberts@idahostatesman.comAugust 21, 2013 

Idaho’s pathway to better public education could come with a price tag of more than $300 million, based on some preliminary recommendations from a state task force studying education reform.

But Gov. Butch Otter, who formed the task force last December, told Idaho Education News he is more interested in hearing the task force’s ideas on what to do than asking its members to provide a budget.

“I fully expect them to say: ‘Here’s the things that we need’ and not make an assessment about the cost,” Otter said. “So then we’re going to have to assess those things they want to do and those things that they need. I don’t expect them to try to figure out a budget for that. That’s my job and the legislative leadership’s job in order to figure that out.”

But cost is “obviously going to be the limiting factor,” Otter said.

A peek at a preliminary list of recommendations from Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education shows concern for recouping education dollars lost over the past several years and improving the workforce by paying teachers more.

The task force was created to bring government, educators, parents and business together following a stormy education fight that led to the defeat of the Students Come First laws in a referendum last November. Task force members will meet Friday to discuss the recommendations, which were expected to be posted on the State Board of Education’s website Wednesday evening or Thursday.

The list isn’t necessarily the final set of recommendations that will go to the governor.

School districts have lost $82.5 million in operational revenue — money needed to pay the electric bills and meet day-to-day expenses — since 2008 as the state pulled back during the recession.

As revenues fell, districts sought to make up the difference with extra tax dollars from voters. But the results are mixed.

Meridian School District is on the verge of emptying its reserve account and could have to cut its budget in 2014-15 without help from the state, said Linda Clark, the district's superintendent and a member of the task force.

A proposal that is part of the recommendations would seek to restore those operational funds over five years.

Another preliminary recommendation would boost teacher salaries as part of a proposal to recruit and retain a strong teaching force.

Minimum teacher salaries would rise from $31,000 to $40,000 throughout the state. Additional steps on a proposed career ladder, which could take teachers into the $60,000 salary range, would depend on instructor evaluations and other yardsticks measuring teachers’ ability and effectiveness, including student performance.

Task force members tried to create the best public education system possible for Idaho, said Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association president, not one “that fell within a certain dollar amount.” She, like other members of the task force, are waiting to see the entire list of recommendations.

No single proposal is going to solve the state’s education problems, said Richard Westerberg, the task force chairman. But taken together, he said, they “will move the needle of education forward in a significant way.”

Otter’s 31-member task force set its goal for public education as meeting the state’s expectation that 60 percent of Idaho’s 25- to 34-year-olds complete some form of postsecondary education. The state is at about 35 percent now.

No matter what comes of the task force’s final recommendation, those ideas are going to need a strong push from educators, administrators and parents to succeed, said Mike Lanza. He’s a task force member and parent who organized Idaho Parents and Teachers Together, which helped defeat the Students Come First legislation.

“We have to get the buy-in,” Lanza said. “A good idea may go nowhere unless the public embraces it.”

Task force members meet at 9 a.m. Friday at the Hatch Ballroom of the Boise State University Student Union building to discuss preliminary recommendations.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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