Districts see help in Otter’s plan; teachers see possible pay cuts

But some think the governor could have done more to restore schools’ depleted budgets.

broberts@idahostatesman.comJanuary 7, 2014 

Sunlight shines off of a window of the Idaho Capitol during the opening session of the 2014 Idaho Legislature.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

The Boise and Meridian school districts could get about $7 million more next school year if the Legislature goes for Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal.

Otter on Monday proposed restoring $35 million of the money Idaho public schools lost in state budget cuts the past four years. The cuts left districts with $83 million less this year than they would have had under pre-recession funding levels.

Otter said the increase would be the first in a five-year series of increases to undo the cuts.

He also said more money is needed to pay an estimated $30 million needed just to cover student-enrollment increases. The combined gap has grown to an estimated $113 million in a public-schools budget exceeding $1 billion, according to the Division of Financial Management.

“I think the $35 million is a super downpayment ... to restore the operating funds,” said Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of 85 Idaho business leaders who support state education reform.

But there is a catch. Part of the money may come from cutting $21 million from a program that pays for teacher bonuses and professional development. That disappointed the presidents of the Meridian and Boise teacher’s union.

“It’s great to get operational funding back, but to do it at the cost of teacher pay is wrong,” said Luke Franklin, Meridian Education Association president.

Otter proposed no money for teacher salary increases, either.

Budget cuts have led to the districts seeking supplemental levies and furloughing employees.

Meridian, Idaho’s largest school district, could get about $4 million more next year, which would ease a potential shortfall in the district budget for 2014-2015 as the district’s reserve fund dwindles to about $2 million.

Boise, the second-largest district, would get about $3 million more. That would ease pressure on its reserve fund, which now is at $10 million but was expected to fall below $5 million next year.

“We are grateful the governor is moving toward restoring operational funds,” said Don Coberly, the Boise superintendent.

Restoring funds was a centerpiece this year of Otter’s plan to enact a first round of recommendations from his 2013 task for improving education. The task force made 20 recommendations, including restoring the funds.

Other recommendations included establishing a career ladder for teachers that pairs pay and job performance, increasing autonomy for local school districts, and looking for ways to make mastery of subject matter — not time spent in school — the driver of educational advancement. Otter recommended those proposals be studied by three committees at the State Board of Education in 2015.

Idaho Business for Education supports the study groups and considers local autonomy essential, Gramer said. “We really do need to get into weeds and figure out how we are going to implement things,” he said.

Mike Lanza, a Boise parent who served on Otter’s task force, was disappointed in Otter’s speech. He was expecting greater information on how the task force’s recommendations would be rolled out. He also said the districts may not be able to wait five years to get all their lost operating revenue back.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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