K-12 endowment flap rooted in 2010 vote

Tuesday’s political dustup over school endowment dollars was three years in the making.

Now, as in February 2010, the five elected officials on the state Land Board are debating about whether to give K-12 a bigger slice of endowment dollars, or build up the endowment reserves. And now, as then, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is putting his fellow Republicans in a tough spot.

The stakes were much higher in 2010. With K-12 facing a second straight year of general fund budget cuts, Luna pressed the case for a backfill. He urged Land Board colleagues to siphon $52.8 million from endowment reserves, and use it to supplement the regular $31.3 million endowment payment for public schools.

Luna got a little less than half a loaf. The Land Board voted to withdraw $22 million from the $90.4 million endowment reserve. One of the reasons for the Land Board’s balkiness: the state’s goal has been to build up sufficient reserves to cover five years of endowment payments.

The state still hasn’t built up that five-year buffer, and is only about two-thirds of the way to this goal. That’s why staff is recommending a normal $31.3 million payment to K-12 in 2014-15, although Luna wants a $36.9 million payment.

The $5.6 million debate also brings up some old tensions, as the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell noted in her coverage of Tuesday’s Land Board meeting. The normally reserved Attorney General Lawrence Wasden made his feelings clear — saying that, in 2010, Land Board members were victims of “political ambush.” Gov. Butch Otter said he knew nothing about Luna’s latest proposal until Monday night, although Luna spelled out his plan in a Friday letter to Land Board members, obtained by Russell.

The Land Board — Otter, Luna, Wasden, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and Controller Brandon Woolf — took no action on the endowment issue Tuesday. The question will come up at the board’s next meeting, Sept. 17. If the past is any indication, it should be an interesting discussion.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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