Help boards be fiscally responsible

Many, disparate issues were addressed in the omnibus legislation known as Students Come First, and the defeat of this legislation by referendum left a huge void in the laws that guide and direct education in Idaho. Simply stated, school districts were left without the tools to conduct business in a fiscally challenging environment.

Recently, several bills have been introduced to address this void. From my perspective, the school boards have brought forth legislation to enable them to be fiscally responsible in the management of their school districts. The individual bills they are promoting address specific tools that are needed to manage budget realities. The introduction of multiple bills puts individual issues before the Legislature and provides for discussion and discourse on specific, identified needs and the individual merits of each measure. It is a sound method for developing public policy.

These bills are not education reform nor are they retaliation or vindictiveness. They are measures required for districts to conduct business, and operate in a financially prudent way. Why are these measures needed? Here are some specific examples.

S1040 provides that contracted amounts may differ from the previous year. Why is this needed? Example:Meridian School District voters recently passed a supplemental levy to restore nine instructional days to the school calendar. This action restored nine of the 14 days that had previously been cut from staff contracts. Should this levy fail in some future year, the board would have no alternative other than (once again) reducing contracts by the necessary number of days.

H 67 provides that, in the event a district and its bargaining unit are unable to reach a finalized agreement by a set date, the district moves forward to operate for the upcoming school year under the last offer. This, again, allows the board of trustees to manage the district budget within the limits of available resources.

H69 (which does not change the type of contracts under which teachers work, as was done in Students Come First) provides that trustees shall create a system for Reductions in Force that accounts for such things as individual performance and certification/endorsements and not merely seniority in determining the reductions. This provision is an example of the tools needed by trustees to ensure that the strongest possible teacher corps is available in every Idaho district.

Districts are currently operating with budgets that still reflect significant cuts. School calendars have been reduced; fund balances have been depleted in many districts; an increasing number of districts have become reliant on so-called “supplemental” levies to balance their general operating budgets; one-time money is still “plugging holes” in budgets; and two-thirds of Idaho’s districts can no longer afford to hire all the teachers they qualify for. All this points to the fact that districts are in financially tentative positions, and must be given the tools necessary to manage limited resources as they continue to work to increase student achievement.

Contrary to current social media postings, these are not the “Luna Laws” revisited. Rather, this introduction of specific, individual bills for consideration is the appropriate method of formulating policy and setting state law through the legislative process. These measures are necessary for trustees to fulfill their fiscal responsibilities and ensure the solvency of their school districts.