The biggest surprise in the Idaho public schools budget set Wednesday was a last-minute addition to let all school districts declare a financial emergency during the next school year. The proposal from Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, is intended to give schools more flexibility to renegotiate contracts with employees during difficult times. The Joint Finance-Appropriations (JFAC) approved Wood’s measure toward the end of its Wednesday meeting for setting the schools budget. It would override a proposal for districts to declare financial emergencies that was approved by the Legislature last year.

Idaho Education Association (IEA) President Sherri Wood said it was the wrong thing to do. The IEA represents teachers across the state. “Why it is that we have to make this a statewide emergency – I don’t get that,” she said. She said 20 districts have already declared emergencies and cut salaries under existing laws. “To say that every district is in a financial crisis, and that there’s not already language in place to deal with that, is incorrect.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who was part of meetings between lawmakers and education leaders like Sherri Wood, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, and officials with Idaho school boards and school administrators, said a statewide financial emergency was considered, but the group couldn’t reach an agreement. “This was an item that was brought up in that working group and set aside,” he said. Cameron added that it could be the biggest hurdle to getting the schools budget approved by the House and Senate. “That may cause consternation amongst teachers in regards to teacher contracts.” But he said it could help districts in planning their spending and contract negotiations for the next school year.

Luna said he first saw Rep. Wood’s proposal on Wednesday, calling it an 11th hour addtion. He didn’t endorse Wood’s proposal, but said it would give districts more flexibility, much like other moves by JFAC, including sending all the funding for some items like classroom supplies and textbooks, directly to the districts to spend as they see necessary. “Because of the flexibility that’s been given, it doesn’t necessitate laying off or firing one teacher,” Luna said. “Unfortunately, the teachers are going to work for less money. They can accomplish that through furlough days … or overall payroll reductions.”

Wood’s financial emergency provision will be part of the education budget that Cameron will present to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday afternoon, and later take to the floor of the Idaho Senate for an up or down vote.

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