The Idaho Senate Monday approved the $1.2 billion budget for public schools that would include a 7.5 percent reduction from the current year’s spending. Funding for K-12 public schools takes up the majority of Idaho’s general fund budget. The biggest obstacle for the schools budget, and the rest of state spending proposals, is a House vote that could come later this week.
“The goals of this [budget] are to protect public schools and to minimize reductions, to provide as much flexibility as possible to local school districts, to maintain student achievement (and) to maintain teacher hours in the classroom,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who chaired the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) that set the budget for schools and other state agencies. He said he understood why some opposed the budget. “I will fully admit that I think it is inadequate for our public school system. You could vote against this bill, because frankly none of us like the reduction in this bill.” But Cameron said rejecting the budget would lead to lower funding for public schools, based on the will of some House Republicans and low tax revenue numbers. “It is in my opinion, the best budget that could potentially come out of [JFAC] without higher revenue numbers.”
Other Republican lawmakers agreed that this was the best budget for schools possible, given the state’s finances. “It isn’t going to get any better if this one doesn’t go through,” Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said about the budget.
“We’re in the greatest financial crisis that we’ve ever experienced in our lifetimes,” said Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “We have done everything we could to protect education.” The schools budget did not see reductions for the current school year. “I feel bad that we can’t do more, but I don’t feel bad that we haven’t done enough,” Hill said. “We have worked hard to get this budget where it is.”
Cameron said Idaho isn’t alone in reducing spending to schools and other programs. “We’re not the only state in the mess. This is not an Idaho problem, this is a national problem.” He also said that a reduction in funding doesn’t necessarily lead to a reduction in the quality of education. “I don’t think that’s a correct notion,” he said. “Every teacher that I know is a professional, and they’re going to teach to the best of their ability regardless of this appropriation and regardless of what they’re paid … They sacrifice unbelievably to make sure that our kids and our grandkids are appropriately taught.”
All seven Democrats in the Senate voted against the lower funding for schools, as did Moscow Republican Sen. Gary Schroeder. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said the cuts will affect school children. “Our class sizes are going to get larger,” he said. “We should be avoiding packing our students into classrooms like sardines.” He also said teacher contact would be reduced. “Johnny and Janey can’t repeat second grade. It just doesn’t work like that. Kids that fall behind now fall behind forever.” Werk said the cuts in the current budget follow years when they weren’t properly funded. “Our public schools have been on a starvation diet for a decade. They are hurting.”
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, said districts would need to make difficult decisions, but that the flexibility in the schools budget could prevent drastic cuts. “I don’t think that we’re really talking about an issue of raising class sizes,” he responded to Werk. “I don’t mean to say that what we’re doing isn’t creating challenges for our school district … What I’m saying is that they’re surmountable.”
“This budget will hurt Idaho school children,” said Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise. “I’m sad that I’m a part of this.” During the debate on the budget, Kelly quoted the Idaho Constitution, which requires the Legislature to maintain public schools. “I think that this bill before us comes perilously close to abdicating our constitutional duty to the children of Idaho,” she said.
Another Boise Democrat, Sen. Nicole LeFavour, tried to add amendments to the school budget that would increase funding for schools and remove some intent language that would allow school districts to declare a financial emergency. “We do have choices before us, and we do have alternatives,” she said. “We have, in our hands, every school in the state of Idaho. And it truly is our duty to do everything we can, and perhaps more.”
Her effort failed. Cameron and Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said lawmakers traditionally don't change budgets after JFAC sets them. Davis called LeFavour’s actions political theatre. “If this body’s not inclined to the legislation, vote against it,” Davis said.
Cameron said he opposed adding the financial emergency language into the schools budget. However, he said it could be a good thing, because it would only last for one year. “There’s a hidden blessing to it being here,” he said. “It’s short term, and we can get by with it.” The financial emergency language could allow districts to reopen contract talks with teachers. A statewide teacher association opposed including it in the budget. Cameron said he looks forward to better financial days, but the current spending plan is the best available to the Legislature. “This is a tough decision for this body, but it is the best budget that can potentially pass for public schools.”