Legislative roundup, 2.17.21: Clow pushes for money for virtual charters

Budget-writers need to find a way to cover a multimillion-dollar shortfall for two Idaho virtual charter schools, House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow said Wednesday.

The Idaho Virtual Academy and Inspire Connections charters have accommodated thousands of new students during the coronavirus pandemic, and added staff to teach this influx of students. Without a boost in state funding, these schools will have to cut staff and cap enrollment, Clow told Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members.

“You’re going to send parents scrambling again,” he said.

On Wednesday, JFAC heard from the chairs of several policymaking committees — the legislative committees assigned to work on education, transportation, health and welfare and natural resource issues. It’s an annual JFAC roadshow. But Clow’s emphasis on the virtual charter school issue pointed up a disagreement between the House and Senate, a rift that could shape the budget-writing process.

In January, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to cover the funding gap, and repeal the charter school budget cap that created the shortfall.

But the Senate Education Committee killed House Bill 22 Wednesday afternoon, hours after JFAC adjourned. Chairman Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said HB 22 would be held in committee after a motion to send the bill out for possible amendments failed.

According to HB 22’s fiscal note, the two charters face a shortfall of nearly $7.7 million. But on Wednesday, Clow told JFAC that that shortfall could come in closer to $6 million.

Regardless, Clow painted the charters as victims of circumstance. The schools welcomed in students displaced during the pandemic, fully expecting that they would receive state funding to cover the surge in students. But the cap on charter budgets — imposed by the 2005 Legislature, and never used since — caught school leaders unaware.

“It is said they violated the law,” Clow said. “That is nowhere close to the fact.”

Legislators and legislative staff were also caught off-guard by the budget cap, said Clow. “It’s like the fine print that nobody reads.”

Notably, the cap only applies to charter schools. There is no cap for traditional public school districts. For example, the state pays for the explosive growth the Oneida School District experienced after the small town district partnered with for-profit digital curriculum providers to enroll hundreds of students from cities and towns across the state.

Although the House passed the bill quickly on a 68-2 vote, the Senate Education Committee considered the bill at length and then put the bill on hold Feb. 2.

The state has held back funding from the charter schools’ February payments, state officials said.

It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday whether or how killing the bill affects JFAC’s funding options.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, suggested using federal emergency stimulus money to pay the schools for the enrollment increases.

“If it is a result of the pandemic that this happened then it should come out of CARES or COVID money,” Ward-Engelking said.

Retired school bus drivers bill introduced

The House Education Committee introduced a new bill Wednesday that supporters say is designed to incentivize retired school bus drivers to come back and help out.

Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, pushed the new bill. He said a retired mechanic who was licensed to drive the bus brought the issue up to him.

Passing the bill into law would allow retired bus drivers to provide help out by driving again without affecting their Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI) benefits.

The new bill is modeled after a similar law that allows retired teachers to come back to help in the classroom without affecting their retirement benefits.

No public testimony was taken Wednesday. Introducing the new bill clears the way for it to return to the committee for a full public hearing.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News covered Wednesday’s hearing remotely. 

 

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