Education organizations are asking Idaho lawmakers to look at raising taxes to hold off reducing funding to public schools. The groups also called for a moratorium on new charter schools and asked a Senate panel to extend laws that give local school districts financial flexibility.
Leaders from the Idaho Education Association (IEA), Idaho Association of School Administrators (IASA), and Idaho School Boards Association (ISBA) all said lawmakers should avoid reducing funding in the current year, because districts are unable to reopen current contracts with teachers and other staff. Gov. Butch Otter recommended a $27 million holdback for public schools in his budget address last week. Based on the lowered revenue projections from lawmakers on Wednesday, that reduction to schools could grow to $61 million, according to Robin Nettinga, executive director of IEA, which represents teachers.
“Before we decide what programs should be cut[,] we urge you to consider how those decisions will impact the system five, 10, or 15 years down the road,” Nettinga said. Her top recommendation to lawmakers was adding revenue to the education budget through a temporary sales tax, a local option tax, or by eliminating some sales tax exemptions. IASA director Wayne Davis suggested taxing bottled water, soft drinks, or Internet sales to offset cuts to schools.
Some members of the Senate Education Committee rejected those ideas. “There are realities out there barring new revenue sources,” said Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow.
“We are in a survival situation,” Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth said about lawmakers trying to balance the state’s finances and fund education. “There are no sacred cows left. We’re going to eat whatever beef we can find.”
Both Nettinga and Davis asked lawmakers to put a cap on creating any new charter schools for the next school year. Both said the cost of new charter schools would further deplete money going to school districts. “The issue is not whether they are good ideas,” Nettinga said about charter schools. “They are great ideas. It is just a question of timing.”
Charter school advocates are calling for removing the current limit of six new charter schools a year. Putting in a one-year moratorium could also jeopardize a potential source of federal money for schools. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the moratorium “sort of flies in the face of Arne Duncan and Race to the Top.” Charter schools are one category of the scoring for that competitive Race to the Top grant program.
Davis also suggested that lawmakers give school districts more flexibility with how they manage certain accounts like Student Occupied Maintenance funds and bus depreciation funds, given the tightening budget situation. He also suggested reducing the required number of school days or school hours for students, given the expected reduction in state funding. “In times of economic distress, it’s our opinion that fewer days well done will be better than 180 days with decimated programs,” Davis said.
Senators will take the suggestions from the speakers under consideration as they look to put together an education budget for the current and next fiscal year. “This kind of frames what our discussions are going to be the rest of the session,” said Goedde, the education committee chair. He said the next key discussion for state public schools will be when Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna presents his budget request to lawmakers on Jan. 28.