School funds from Otter's spending plan would help, not solve

Treasure Valley districts would still need to invoke austerity measures despite Otter’s spending plan.

broberts@idahostatesman.comJanuary 9, 2014 

Second-graders in Stephanie May's classroom at Roosevelt Elementary last fall will need to develop critical thinking skills in today's economy.

Don’t expect much in the way of improved classroom education if the Legislature approves Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to restore less than half of the revenue public schools have lost to budget cuts since 2009.

Treasure Valley school districts say they will use the money to keep what teachers and programs they have, pay for increased expenses in utilities and health insurance premiums, restore teacher training days lost to furloughs, work on deferred maintenance and maybe make some modest classroom improvements.

Those gains would be possible for many districts, but only if schools persuade voters to keep shelling out property taxes for supplemental levies that are in most cases larger than the amount of money districts would get from Otter’s plan.

“Once we are restored to those 2009 levels, we are still not going to see new things,” said Wendy Johnson, Kuna School District superintendent.

Otter’s proposal was a result of a recommendation by the Task Force for Improving Education that he appointed in late 2012 after voters defeated school reforms backed by Otter and Tom Luna, state superintendent of education.

Thirty-one task force members said a key element to aiding education in Idaho would be restoring $83 million in annual funding that school districts lost over four years beginning in 2009.

The task force recommended a five-year restoration plan of about $16.5 million a year. Otter more than doubled that amount in the first year to $35 million. He estimates that the yearly total would need to rise over four years to $113 million to pay for enrollment growth and to restore certain funding for educational facilities and safe schools.

As budgets were cut in the midst of the recession, teachers were furloughed, busing trimmed and school days chopped off the calendar.

“We know the harm it has done,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s joint budget-writing committee.

Local school districts have already penciled in estimates they think they would get from Otter’s proposals.

Meridian, the state’s largest school district, would get the largest single payment: $4 million. But that won’t buy any changes in district operations, Superintendent Linda Clark said.

That’s because the district has tapped its reserve accounts for day-to-day operational spending. It took $6 million out of the fund for this year’s expenses, leaving a balance of about $2 million. The $4 million Otter proposes offsets just two-thirds of that.

“We will still have to deplete (the reserve fund) just to maintain this current year’s budget” in 2014-2015, Clark said. “I’d like to see a heftier down payment.”

Nampa schools would get an estimated $1.7 million. But its residents will be asked in March to vote on continuing a levy that pays for day-to-day operations. The current levy is $1.6 million. Suggested amounts have been up to $2.8 million and include restoring five teacher-contact days with students.

No amount is set for the March levy yet. If it fails, Otter’s $1.7 million “keeps us at the status quo,” said Pete Koehler, superintendent.

If it succeeds, Nampa could combine levy money with the funding and possibly get more teachers, some help with basic expenses such as health insurance and a new busing contract.

“Our first priority would be getting (more) student time with teachers,” Koehler said.

Kuna would get about $600,000. The district expects about a 10 percent increase in health insurance premiums — about $200,000. A couple of heating and cooling units at schools need replacing, said Johnson, the superintendent.

“It’s going to be gobbled up pretty quickly,” she said.

Like Nampa, Kuna plans to ask taxpayers to renew a levy that has helped the district through tough times. The board will consider whether to cut the $3.19 million levy by the amount the district gets from the state.

“We are looking to see if that is going to be possible,” Johnson said.

Otter’s proposal seems to have support in many places in the Legislature.

“I think it’s a really good start,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, a budget committee co-chair.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’ Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, backs it, too. So does Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, often one of the Legislature’s most critical members of how education is administered in the state.

Democrats are less enthusiastic. Otter proposes socking away $71 million in rainy day funds and setting aside $30 million for potential tax relief. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, says $60 million of that could be put to better use in schools.

“The governor’s budget has enough flexibility in it; (the Legislature) might be able to find an additional $60 million,” he said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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