Idaho school spending has yet to recover: An in-depth report

Idaho public schools will get their highest state funding ever from the Legislature next year, but they still will not have recovered all that they lost as school budgets were sliced during the Great Recession.

Lawmakers will put $1.46 billion into classrooms in 2015-16, a 7.4 percent increase over 2014-15. In 2006-07 dollars, next year’s appropriation is $1.24 billion, 3.5 percent less than districts spent on education a decade ago, when the state had fewer students to educate. Per-student general-fund spending in 2006 dollars fell from $5,146 in 2006-07 to $4,190 in 2013-14, the latest year for which student enrollment figures are available. That’s a drop of 18.6 percent.

The recessionary sinkhole pulled down every aspect of Idaho public education. The West Ada School District, Idaho’s largest, lost 120 teaching positions as class sizes mushroomed. It cut midday kindergarten busing, charged students for sports and other extracurricular activities and secured voter support to impose temporary property-tax increases.

Boise cut 50 teachers and six days from its calendar. Boise and other Idaho districts turned to voters for property-tax money, too. Melba schools converted to four-day weeks. As budgets kept pay low, some rural districts struggled to fill teaching jobs.

In 2012-13 Linda Clark, superintendent of West Ada School District, was educating students for $4,084 each, less than half the national average.

“It puts a huge perspective on why school districts in Idaho are struggling like they are,” Clark said.

The impact was compounded by inflation. While inflation is hardly rampant — it has averaged about 2 percent a year — the state’s failure to keep pace over the last several years has created a gap. The government says it takes $1.17 today to buy what $1 bought in 2006.

“Nobody listens about inflation or consumer price index or anything like that,” said Nancy Landon, the Boise district’s administrator of budget and finance. “That is why you are seeing those huge increases in those supplemental levies. They had to go somewhere else to get the revenue.”

Inflation is projected to be nearly flat for 2015, according the Idaho Division of Financial Management. It is projected to rise 2.1 percent in 2016. “That is the bigger fear,” Landon said.

For the coming school year, the Legislature used the slowly-improving economy to undo some of the damage, delivering $101 million more to schools.

As a result, the Boise School District, which gutted its $2 million-a-year budget for textbooks and other curriculum materials, will spend about $800,000 to purchase a senior class math textbook. West Ada plans to hire 11 additional teachers. Melba will begin to curb its drawdown of reserve funds.

Will the temporary property-tax increases end? Don’t count on it.

Neither Boise nor West Ada say the new money is sufficient to guarantee they won’t come back to voters for yet another round of supplemental levies. Boise has never drawn the full $14 million a year that voters approved in 2012, but it will draw $3.7 million next year. The supplemental expires in 2017.

For West Ada, whose levy expires in 2016, asking voters for more depends a lot on how much money the district will receive from the state. Clark said the district still needs more money to keep up with energy bills, buy textbooks, cover health insurance costs and contribute to salary increases for 2016.

The showcase of this year’s legislative appropriation was its inclusion of a new career ladder to boost teacher pay based on performance evaluations.

The career ladder ultimately aims to boost teacher pay across the board, though it is weighted toward the bottom of the scale for the next few years as lawmakers seek to increase pay for beginning teachers from $31,750 in the just-finished school year to $37,000 by 2019-20.

The Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers union, supported the ladder. But Penni Cyr, the union’s president, worries about inflation eroding its value.

Assuming a 2 percent inflation rate, the real salary growth for beginning teachers will be about 1 percent a year through 2019-20. Meanwhile, most states surrounding Idaho are already paying higher beginning salaries than the $32,700 Idaho will pay in the coming school year.

“By the time we get to a point of paying $37,000, our concern is that states around us will be paying more,” Cyr said.

Boise will get $1.9 million more from the state to cover salaries than last year, and it will combine that with $1.6 million in other district money to cover pay increases.

Districts such as West Ada and Boise already pay more for teacher salaries than the state’s formulas support by tapping state-appropriated discretionary funds.

Lawmakers should consider a second year of large-scale increases in education spending when they return to Boise in January, said Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, the House minority leader. But 2016 is an election year, when tax cuts often look desirable to lawmakers.

“There are times when you can move the ball and times when it is more difficult,” Rusche said.

Outgoing Sen. Dean Cameron, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, has pushed for raising beginning teacher salaries to $40,000 in three years, instead of the $37,000 over five that lawmakers agreed upon. He also wants to raise the top of the career ladder, where state support for teacher salaries tops out at $50,000.

But he supported the final career-ladder plan lawmakers enacted and believes the Legislature helped schools a lot this year. “I’m certainly not going to complain about three-quarter of a loaf,” the Rupert Republican said. “I think the Legislature made a sea change in education.”

Districts face a number of spending needs beyond teacher salaries. One is ever-rising health insurance premiums. Cameron thinks there should be a way to break out the insurance costs and fund them separately, so lawmakers get a better feel for the actual costs districts incur.

Cameron is leaving the Legislature to become the state’s director of insurance, effective Monday.

Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, the House Education Committee chairman, helped guide the career ladder through the Legislature this year. The Eagle Republican said he doesn’t think dollars spent should be the standard for determining whether education is improving. Spending on the career ladder for next year moves education spending away from salaries based on length of service toward salaries based on instructional outcomes, he said.

While schools want more, superintendents say they are pleased that lawmakers are making progress.

“I do believe the Legislature deserves credit and kudos for the efforts they have made,” Clark said. “But I think the conversation is bigger than that.”