Idaho schools chief Luna pushes for more education funding

Treasure Valley districts see pluses, but some still fear a financial squeeze.

broberts@idahostatesman.comOctober 2, 2013 

  • LUNA’S BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

    Luna proposes more for teachers, students and school districts.

    Career ladder: $42.2 million for a down payment on boosting teacher salaries as part of a career ladder rewarding teachers for improving student performance, classroom management and educational leadership. It would eliminate paying teachers based on length of service or additional education. The cost of putting a career ladder in place could be $250 million over six years, including raising the beginning teacher salaries from $31,000 to $40,000. Luna, after task force recommendations, proposes to increase beginning salaries for 2014-2015 to $33,000. Details of a career ladder have not been worked out yet.

    Restoring revenue: $16.5 million for the first installment of replacing the $82.5 million districts lost during the recession.

    Getting a jump on college: Giving high school juniors up to $200 and seniors up to $400 to apply toward the cost of taking college level courses while in high school. The proposal is based on a bill state Sen. Steven Thayn, R- Emmett, expects to introduce in the 2014 session. The proposal would increase funding to help pay for dual credit to a total of $5.6 million.

    Teacher education: $12.2 million to help with teacher professional development, up $8.4 million from this year.

Tom Luna, who struggled to find support for his Students Come First education reforms in 2011, got early backing for his proposed 2015 public schools budget unveiled Tuesday.

The key: Luna isn’t going it alone this time. He’s investing in proposals at the heart of Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force on Improving Education, which has unified a sometimes fractious educational community.

Luna’s proposed 6 percent budget increase — the largest since 2008 — is “a reasonable request,” said state Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee. “I think Tom has done a pretty good job of listening to the task force’s recommendations.”

But Luna’s budget isn’t the only one lawmakers will consider. Gov. Butch Otter, who also supports his task force’s ideas, will submit an education budget when the Legislature convenes in January.

Luna’s most difficult task could be overcoming lawmaker sticker shock for more than $40 million to launch a teacher career ladder. The effort could eventually cost $250 million.

Lawmakers have been hesitant to put more dollars into the existing teacher salary system. Many think it is flawed because it relies on the length of time teachers spend on the job and their amount of education.

Changing those dynamics — putting more accountability into the system and breaking away from the old pay model — could make a difference. “But the speed at which it takes place may be the question,” said Cameron, R-Rupert.

Several local districts are pleased with Luna’s plan to restore $16.5 million of the $82.5 million Idaho schools lost to budget cuts through the Great Recession and in the years after. Luna has called for fully restoring the money over several years.

Nampa School District has a laundry list of projects it has put on hold as the state cut budgets and the district faced its own financial problems.

Nampa could get about another $800,000 for 2015, if Luna’s budget succeeds. Money could go to defraying costs of skyrocketing health insurance premiums, upgrading curriculum, purchasing learning supplies and fixing buildings.

“I am grateful for every penny they can put toward us,” said Pete Koehler, interim superintendent. “I am doing a happy dance.”

Meridian School District officials would have liked more.

Meridian, which could drain its reserves in the 2014-2015 school year after covering for state budget cuts, stands to get $2 million of the $16.5 million if lawmakers approve the plan. But the district would still be down about $7 million after that boost.

“It’s a good thing he is putting additional operation money in there,” said Bruce Gestrin, deputy superintendent. “I just thought perhaps it would be a larger request.”

Districts also are pleased that Luna wants to put a total of $5.6 million into helping students pay for dual-credit classes, which can earn them college credit before high school graduation.

Luna supports making $200 available to each junior and $400 to each senior to cover up to 75 percent of the cost of dual-credit programs.

Students often can’t afford to cover the cost of exams or courses that are part of the dual-credit program, administrators say.

“I think that is a significant investment in students that are wanting to take rigorous coursework,” said Don Coberly, Boise School District superintendent.

In Nampa, the money could make the difference in how many dual-credit classes student take, Koehler said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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