Idaho public schools superintendent Tom Luna says budgeting decisions in the past week could lead to an 8.4 percent, $110 million across-the-board funding reduction for schools in the next budget. The size of that reduction has grown after lawmakers settled on a slimmer state budget than Gov. Butch Otter originally recommended and the Land Board voted to give schools $22 million from a reserve fund, rather than the $52.8 million he requested.
“I’m confident that those dollars will be used to minimize the cuts to education,” Luna told the Senate Education Committee Tuesday. The reductions in state revenue likely won’t influence the current schools budget. “A majority of the districts would prefer that there be no holdback at this time, understanding that it means deeper budget cuts for the following year,” he said. Many school expenses, including salaries for teachers and other staff, are locked in under contracts. That can make midyear reductions difficult, but Luna said schools are trying to comply with a shrinking budget. “Districts are doing everything they can right now to save pennies and dollars now knowing that they’re going to need those extra dollars next year.”
Some senators said Luna should look for more targeted reductions, or give local school districts more authority and flexibility in how to spend their money. Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said one area where Luna should look to save money is by putting a moratorium on new charter schools. “The fact remains that charter schools are expensive,” she said. “They are competing with regular schools for general fund dollars.”
Luna disagreed with Kelly, saying that the state funds charter schools on the same per-student basis as traditional schools. “There is a misconception that charter schools cost taxpayers more money,” he said. According to Luna, new charter schools help the state deal with a growing school-aged population without need to build as many new school buildings. “Charter schools do not rely on local taxpayers to fund their facilities and maintenance of their facilities, which is a tremendous saving.” He also said charter schools also can’t issue local property tax levies. “They have no ability to go to the taxpayer to get additional funding.”
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, suggested combining the state’s alternative schools, which receive $50 million in funding, with other public schools or technical schools. Luna said not all that money could be saving by switching students to different schools, and that student achievement would drop. “Most of the (alternative schools) have been very effective in helping some students who struggle in traditional education settings to be successful,” he said.
Mortimer also suggested to Luna that school districts be given more power in spending money, rather than have it targeted at specific programs and activities. Several other Republicans on the panel seemed open to the idea of giving schools more control, which is called lump sum authority, but Luna was against the idea. “It’s important that we do not provide flexibility at the expense of student achievement,” he said. Luna said an across-the-board reduction would maintain successful programs. “There a reason that in the latest national assessment, only eight states are performing better than Idaho on a math assessment,” he said.
“If we lump sum to local districts, I guess it would be up to them to decide if whether they were going to take advantage of those programs,” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the chair of the education committee. Goedde will have to present recommendations from the committee on Thursday to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), which will set the budget for education and the rest of state government during the next few weeks. He said the committee hasn’t reached an agreement on whether it will follow all of Luna’s budget recommendations or suggest changes to the next schools budget.