All across the state, local school districts are holding meetings, hearings and work sessions to figure out how they’ll come to terms with $128 million in cuts approved by the Legislature and Gov. Butch Otter.
So far, most of the recommendations fail to impress. Many school districts are resorting to the old standby — turning to voters to approve property tax levies in order to make up for the shortfall. Others are altering school schedules, such as going to four-day work weeks or consolidating kindergarten schedules. Strangely absent from most discussions, at least so far, are teacher compensation packages. Payroll and benefits can consume as much as 80 percent of a school district’s budget. Compensation issues are almost unavoidable. Almost.
The Madison School District in eastern Idaho came right up against this wall recently when the school board voted to eliminate one week of classes in order to save $100,000. The move won’t impact student education, officials said — a shocking statement in and of itself.
If students can forgo an entire week of class instruction and still receive the same education, why exactly are taxpayers paying for that last week?
The other amazing revelation from the Madison decision is that because teachers are under contract, they won’t be impacted by the school board’s decision to forgo the last week of school. Those educators will be paid not to teach. Meanwhile, school support staff who don’t have a contract — custodians, bus drivers, lunchroom employees and so on — will absorb the hit for losing a week’s worth of work.
The truth is, the real savings to be had comes by taking a closer look at total teacher compensation, including benefits. For years, school districts have operated under the blanket of protection of state and local funding, never having to make harsh and difficult decisions that would put benefits under the microscope. As a result, many, but not all, districts have provided funding for some very expensive and lucrative insurance plans.
In dozens of districts, taxpayers have been required to pay 100 percent of the cost of insurance premiums. Now districts should be under the gun: can they continue to tap taxpayers to maintain those benefits at a time when the most important task for schools is to maintain the quality of education?
It’s a dicey issue. School boards have fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer. The quality of education has to come first. At the same time, the nature of a public school means hiring employees, then offering those employees the right compensation and the right benefits to keep them employed, lest they go somewhere else where the pay and benefits are better.
There’s another component to this, however, that deserves the school board’s attention: fairness and equity. Is it fair to burden the taxpayer with subsidizing the entire cost of health insurance benefits at a time when many Idaho employers are simply unable to afford insurance themselves and employees are being told they’ll have to buy their own medical coverage? And is it right to cut school programs and classes while leaving benefit packages untouched?
I think not. It’s the ultimate end-of-the-year test question, and it’s pass-fail. If school board members refuse to alter pay and benefits, they’re the ones who will need to look taxpayers in the eye and explain how they arrived at their answers.