Idaho public schools superintendent Tom Luna lawmakers will know next week whether they will have $52 million to make writing the education budget easier. The Land Board, which can decide how to spend the rainy day fund that Luna is hoping to tap, is scheduled to meet on Feb. 10.
“The Legislature will know on the 10th what action the Land Board is taking on this matter,” Luna said. A majority vote of the Land Board, which includes Luna, the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and controller, could transfer $52.8 million from the Public Schools Earnings Reserve Fund to the next school budget. Luna said that fund will have a $90 million balance at the end of the current budget. Some lawmakers on an education panel questioned whether Luna can get that money, but he said he’s hopeful. “I think there’s a very realistic opportunity and need for the Land Board to release a portion of that $90 million dollars … It’s hard to justify having that much money in a reserve account.” Luna’s spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said none of the other Land Board members have told him whether they will vote yes or no on the fund transfer.
Lawmakers had other questions for Luna about his budget proposal. Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, said he isn’t sure the across-the-board reduction Luna is proposing to education programs is the best move in a down economy. “The thing I keep hearing from superintendents in my area is give us the dollars, give us the number, and let us teach your children,” Gibbs said. He’s calling for a lump sum payment to districts that would provide them more flexibility. That could mean cuts to newer programs Luna has promoted, including the Idaho Reading Initiative or Idaho Digital Learning Academy.
“We want every student, no matter where they live, to have the same access to high-quality opportunities,” Luna said. “These programs are a small part of the budget, less than $11 million, but they are critical in maintaining the student achievement that we have seen.”
Some on the panel agreed with Luna. “We need to be very careful when we cut back in those important programs,” said Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise.
But other lawmakers found places to cut. “This budget that you’ve got in front of us is a lot of pie in the sky,” said Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth. He asked how Luna’s budget can save $2 million by cutting the early retirement program.
“We can debate whether it saves money or costs money over the long term,” Luna said about the early retirement program. “But It saves us money today, and that is what we’re facing and dealing with is how do we save the dollars today.” Currently, eligible teachers can get an $18,000 one-time bonus by retiring early. Luna said the money for early retirement, currently $2 million, is emptied every year to retiring teachers.
Luna repeated his desire to look under every rock and shake every tree to find money for schools. His combination of targeted cuts, including the early retirement program, and additional funding would only cover $85 million of the $135 million reduction that education is facing in the next budget. He is calling for the remaining reduction to come in across-the-board cuts.