The stakeholders in Idaho public schools are reaching a consensus on the lower spending and increased flexibility that could come in the budget for the next school year. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said lawmakers have talked with interested parties, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and school board members, teachers, and administrators. He characterized the two meetings on Feb. 22 and 24 as cooperative but at times contentious.
The meetings come as the blueprint of the next schools budget, which should be set March 1, shows a significant reduction in spending, estimated at 8 percent. Reductions targeted at public schools for the current school year were avoided by shifting reserve funds and federal stimulus money that are now not available for the next budget. Teachers could see a 4 percent reduction in base salaries, and administrators a 6.5 percent reduction, according to Idaho Association of School Administrators Director Wayne Davis.
The working group of lawmakers and education leaders also looked at Luna’s suggested reductions for school spending. His largest recommendation, freezing the experience grid for teachers and administrators, could be part of the schools budget. Cameron said there’s also agreement to freeze the educational grid for teachers. Those freezes mean school staff won’t get a standard pay increase that comes with completing another year of teaching or getting additional training. At some point those freezes would thaw and pay grids for workers would true up, but they could save $8-10 million.
Some of Luna’s other targeted reductions appear to be off the table. The idea of removing the average daily attendance protection, which would prevent schools with unexpected drops in students from seeing a drop in funding, won’t be part of the budget. Luna had said it would save $5 million and stop Idaho from paying to educate students who aren’t there. Cameron said the idea needs more study. Instead of reducing state spending for school supplies, field trips, and early teacher retirement programs, as Luna suggested, there seems to be an agreement to shift that money into the hands of local school districts, which could spend the money as needed. Statewide education programs Luna has advocated for, including remediation help for the ISAT testing, the Idaho Math Initiative, and Idaho Reading Initiative, would see a 10 percent reduction, but not be shifted to local districts.
Other school programs’ line items in the budget could also be shifted to local districts. Transportation could see a 10 percent reduction and shift to discretionary funding for local districts. The $22 million transfer from a reserve fund approved by the Land Board and $1 million in gifted and talented teacher training could also go to local districts. Still, Cameron said all discretionary funding for districts would likely drop 15 percent from the roughly $350 million in the current school budget. “It’s all about being flexible with the money,” he said.
Cameron said more details will be available about the next education budget Friday during the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) meeting. JFAC is scheduled to set the next schools budget on March 1. The House and Senate would then need to approve that budget.