Educators, administrators say Idaho schools funding is in the basement

Moscow-Pullman Daily NewsJanuary 21, 2014 

Budget recommendations recently released by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter declared Idaho’s education system a top priority. Yet the state’s education ranking fell again, with numbers low in almost all areas of performance and outcome.

The annual Quality Counts report released by Education Week reveals Idaho has shown no improvement since 2012. In the three areas measured — chance for success, K-12 achievement and school finance — Idaho fell near the bottom half of the nation, ranking 49th on the school finance analysis and 50th on efforts to improve teaching. The nonprofit national newspaper on K-12 education grades each state and the District of Columbia.

Melissa McGrath, communications director of the Idaho State Department of Education, said the report does a good job of comparing education from state to state.

"Every state uses a different funding formula and distributes funding differently, so coming up with these measurements can be difficult to do," McGrath said.

Otter proposed a $1.34 billion budget for public schools, a nearly 2.9 percent increase over the current budget. The budget includes $54.7 million toward recommendations from the education task force. Otter’s budget also includes $8.25 million in one-time money for professional development, $7.4 million to restore safe and drug-free schools programs and more than $10 million toward funding for technology devices and continuing funding for installation of Wi-Fi and broadband in all public schools.

Otter’s recommendations did not include any immediate raise in teacher salaries, but proposed a major boost once a teacher career ladder structure is developed.

"There is a strong statewide focus on improving educator preparation and how we license teachers in Idaho," McGrath said.

State Representative Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said the governor’s recommendations are lighter than those made by state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who proposed $42 million for the career ladder system and a 5.4 percent increase in education funding.

The career ladder comes from recommendations of Otter’s education task force implemented in 2012 to improve K-12 education in Idaho. The plan increases minimum teachers pay from $31,000 to $40,000 and veteran teachers pay from $50,000 to $60,000, upon performance reviews. McGrath said a group of educators is working on the details and it will be close to a year before full implementation. "The governor is being more conservative about offering funding before he sees further details about the career ladder," Ringo said.

Deb Adair, business manager for the Moscow School District, said state funding is not adequate. The supplemental maintenance and operations levy supported by patrons allows the district to pay more competitive wages compared to other districts in the state.

"I have talked to business managers in other districts that can only pay what the state funds," Adair said. "As a result they have bigger classrooms, larger ratio of students to teachers and may have to cut extracurricular activities."

Adair said the district expensed $17.4 million for salaries and benefits in 2013, receiving $8.9 million from the state.

"Without the support of our community with the supplemental levy, we would have to significantly cut teacher positions, decrease course offerings, increase class sizes and eliminate programs such as the Gifted and Talented and many extracurricular activities," Adair said. The Moscow School District’s current supplemental levy for fiscal 2013 is $9.6 million.

Funding to improve facilities comes mostly from bonds and different levies in each district. Adair said because of the bond recently passed by the MSD patrons, the district is able to make minimal protocol repairs and upgrades to the seven school buildings it would not otherwise be able to afford.

Idaho’s poorer districts do not receive higher funding from the state. Moscow School District Superintendent Greg Bailey said Idaho is one of the hardest states to pass a bond, having to get a supermajority and not receiving as much support from the state matching funds.

Districts currently have to put a certain amount of money toward any building occupied by students based on the square footage of the facility.

"This does not meet the need to keep facilities up to par," Bailey said. "We have to make the decision, do you want nice facilities or a stronger education program?"

He said to have a common, equal, appropriate education system, one has to look at the state level of funding. The district is putting off maintenance, textbooks and computer equipment due to finances.

"The only thing keeping us alive in the state of Idaho is local community members and local taxes. The state gives the district enough for a basic, basic education," Bailey said. "It is embarrassing where we sit with financing education not only at K-12, but I believe at the college level as well."

Idaho rated low in efforts to improve teaching, failing on incentives and salaries. The report outlined teacher salaries were not equal to comparable occupations and there were no incentives for teachers working in hard-to-staff teaching areas.

Potlatch Superintendent Jeff Cirka said districts generally have a hard time gathering the quality teachers they are looking for because of the competing market between Idaho and Washington schools. Washington ranks 29th in the nation on the school finance analysis and 26th on efforts to improve teaching.

"Competing against Washington is competing with a different price tag, which makes it tough," Cirka said. "There are shortages in certain positions, and we have to look more rigorously to find a quality person in the skill area we are looking for."

Cirka said there are shortages in science, math and special education positions across the state.

Campaigns such as "Don’t Fail Idaho" and "Complete College Idaho" push to bring public awareness to students continuing education and to better prepare students for college.

"We have a lot of work to do for students who try to go on to college," McGrath said.

Cirka said technology has helped students in the rural schools of Idaho to have the same opportunities as larger urban school districts.

"Because of the crunch on teachers and the classes that you can offer at rural schools, technology has helped create avenues for our kids to receive classes that might be aligned with dual credit, classes that can give them a head start on getting into college," Cirka said. "Because of technology they can pick up courses and be exposed to areas they are interested in."

The complete 2014 Quality Counts report can be found at this shortened link: http://goo.gl/2BvM5p.

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