Listening session: Politicos, public get an earful

The late afternoon “listening session” was designed to give House and Senate education committee members a chance to hear from more Idahoans — such as teachers, who were scarce at an early morning session on Feb. 1.

The two-hour session also gave hundreds of Idahoans a chance to hear the education funding debate firsthand. The crowd quickly filled the Statehouse auditorium, which can seat more than 200 people. Overflow crowds watched video in two adjacent meeting rooms.

The lawmakers and the public heard a reprise of the debate over the Idaho School Boards Association’s controversial collective bargaining laws. But they also heard some other budgetary themes:

Rural concerns. With small-town school administrators in town for the ISBA’s annual lobbying event, several rural officials took the opportunity to discuss their schools’ funding plight. Saint Maries Superintendent Joseph Kren openly fretted about seeking to replace lost state funding through a property tax levy — in a county wrestling with a 13 percent unemployment rate. In Ririe, the school district will seek a levy for the first time since 1932, Superintendent Ron Perrenoud said.

The plight of rural districts was also on the mind of Rigby Republican Rep. JoAn Wood, the Legislature’s senior member. Discussing the challenges of hiring teachers in rural districts, Wood said, “They must have to love the outdoors enough to come to some of our schools and teach.”

Personal property tax. School districts have a $38.6 mllion-a-year stake in the repeal of this unpopular tax on business equipment and furnishings — and several rural educators cautioned against a repeal of the tax.

In the Troy School District, repeal could cost $38,000, said Superintendent Christy Castro. That would be enough to cost the district two part-time positions, including a grade school counselor.

In American Falls, the personal property tax is worth $1.4 million a year, a sum paid predominately by industry. Said American Falls School Board member Dallas Clinger, “Be careful with the big-business personal property tax.”

Charter equity. Charter parents and students made a big showing at the Feb. 1 listening session. They weren’t as prevalent Monday, but charter advocates again argued for increased funding in general — and help with facilities funding in specific. Dan Nicklay of the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy said he doesn’t begrudge — but does envy — the Coeur d’Alene district’s levying authority.

A smattering of teachers. The after-school session didn’t attract many teachers, and they were outnumbered by rural administrators and charter advocates. One teacher who spoke was Gail Chumbley of Eagle High School. House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, warmly welcomed Chumbley, saying the longtime educator had taught some of his children. Chumbley expressed mixed emotions. She said she is retiring at year’s end, lamenting the declining standards of Idaho schools, but she urged educators and politicians to find common ground. “In educating students, we share more in common than not.”