Analysis: Luna’s budget, Version 2.0

That K-12 budget Tom Luna presented in October?

It was not, as the state superintendent took pains to say Thursday, not entirely his budget. It was, largely, the education reform task force’s budget.

Luna presser
Tom Luna addresses reporters after presenting his 2014-15 K-12 budget request Thursday.

Three months ago, Luna tried to draft a budget that would fund the first year of task force reforms — and show Idahoans the hard numbers needed to bankroll a K-12 makeover costing more than $350 million.

On Thursday, Luna went before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee with a budget that still reflects the work of Gov. Butch Otter’s task force. But there are some significant changes — which, as much as anything, may reflect two political realities:

  • First, lawmakers seem eager to give money back into school districts, which are still reeling from $82.5 million in recession-era cuts in “operational funding.” Luna’s budget rewrite would put $35 million back into operational funding — an increase from the $16.5 million he requested in October, and in sync with Gov. Butch Otter’s budget.
  • Second, some key lawmakers want to put money into teacher pay, particularly by folding money into the salary base. Luna still wants $15.9 million in “leadership bonuses” for teachers. But he’s also requesting a $10.9 million in salary and benefit increases — a 1 percent salary increase for teachers, and, since administrators and classified staff are not eligible for the teacher “leadership bonuses,” a 2 percent pay raise for both groups. All told, this is well below the $42 million in pay raises Luna requested in October.

After the budget presentation, JFAC co-chairman Dean Cameron said Luna showed good political sense by moving his operational budget upward and trimming his salary request. “It’s a good blueprint to work from,” said Cameron, a Republican senator from Rupert. “I think he showed some movement.”

District superintendents — still reeling from the effects of the recession — have been clamoring for operational money that can help cover health insurance, transportation and utility costs. Some JFAC members want to find more than $35 million to put back into this budget, Cameron said.

JFAC members also want to bolster the teacher pay base — especially if they give state employees a raise, as a legislative committee has already recommended. Cameron says he’s skeptical about the leadership bonuses, and he isn’t sure the committee is sold. In other words, the only way to secure a teacher pay raise might be by putting money into the salary base.

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Of course, that is a salary base that the task force wants to overhaul. The most costly of the task force’s 20 recommendations is a salary ladder that would increase pay for starting teachers and veteran teachers — but cost more than $250 million to establish. The task force recommended the salary ladder in August, but the idea is not ready to implement, because the state also needs to come up with the tiered licensure system that would route teachers into the new pay structure.

Luna would need to convince the Legislature to pass a bill establishing leadership bonuses; a draft, he said, “is being kicked around.” Luna used Thursday to restate his pitch. By allowing districts to reward teachers who mentor or take on other leadership functions, Idaho would take a first step toward a career ladder. That may be true, but the 1 percent pay increase may also reflect a bow to the politically possible.

During a news conference Thursday, Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Spence tried to cajole Luna into making a much-expected re-election announcement. Since he was holding court in front of a group of reporters, said Spence, did Luna want to talk about his political future?

After more than 2 1/2 hours of budget presentations and question-and-answer sessions, Luna wasn’t going to  bite.

“I think I’ve been talking about my political career all morning,” he said, smiling.

But Luna’s budget proposal and its changes seem geared toward securing some dollars for two groups with a heavy stake in the 2014 superintendent’s race: district officials and rank-and-file teachers.

More reading: Our in-depth look at the Luna budget: What’s in the budget, and how does it differ from Otter’s budget?

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is based out of Boise State University and its reporters are state employees. Their salaries are paid by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, not public tax dollars.