$125 million teacher pay plan in jeopardy

A $125 million proposal to raise Idaho teacher pay appears to be in trouble as major legislative deadlines loom.

Several House Education Committee members expressed concerns Friday with the career ladder salary bill. Supporters say the bill is designed to raise every teacher’s salary throughout a five-year implementation period. (Click here to read the 33-page bill.)

Committee members said the bill may not have the votes to make it out of committee on Tuesday, when a vote is scheduled.

Some fiscally conservative Republicans question the long-term budgetary implications. If Democrats heed concerns voiced by the teachers’ union, supporters could have a difficult time finding the eight votes needed to ensure the bill’s passage.

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Rep. Pat McDonald, R-Boise

“My concern is are the (financial) projections accurate for the second, third, fourth and fifth year,” Rep. Pat McDonald said. “If not, this could be a colossal mistake. If those estimates are not right on, it could cost us millions.”

If lawmakers kill or sidetrack the bill Tuesday, this could have major ramifications for the 2015-16 public school budget, which the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee expects to set just two days later – on Thursday.

The career ladder sprung from the 2013 recommendations issued by Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education. The proposal garnered unanimous support at the time.

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During an Idaho Press Club luncheon Wednesday, House Speaker Scott Bedke called the career ladder “the education bill” of the session. He went on-the-record with Idaho Education News a week earlier, saying lawmakers will not adjourn for the year until they address teacher pay.

Otter has also backed the career ladder, saying he wants to spend $31.9 million next year to begin rolling out the proposal. On Friday, Otter penned an op-ed piece reasserting his support.

“We cannot wait any longer to make these types of fundamental changes to improve our education system,” Otter wrote. “Idaho’s future prosperity and global competitiveness demands that we change how we recruit teachers, improve teacher retention, and provide fiscal stability for our school districts so they can afford to keep their best teachers in the classroom.”

The career ladder would create two salary rungs — an initial residency rung for beginning teachers and a professional rung for teachers with three or more years of experience.

For 2019-20, salaries would break down as follows:

  • Residency level: $37,000 to $39,000.
  • Professional level: $42,500 to $50,000.

The career ladder does not jeopardize a teacher’s license or certificate.

Debating the career ladder

McDonald said he wants to recruit excellent teachers to Idaho and retain quality educators who already work here. He said he likes the bill’s concept, because “it gives teachers an opportunity.”

Although he feels comfortable with the state’s ability to afford the first-year cost of $31.9 million, McDonald worries the bill contains no contingency plan in the event of an economic slump or unexpected budget calamity.

“What I don’t want to do is fund something now because we’ve got the money and have us not think about a forward planning process with regards to being able to fund it when money is scarce,” McDonald said.

McDonald is torn. He said he is prepared to hold the bill next week – essentially casting a vote to kill it for the year so it could be vetted and refined. But he isn’t locked in. In order for him to vote to pass the bill, McDonald said someone would need to convince him that the $125.6 million cost estimate is accurate and that the state has the wherewithal to pay for it each year.

He also would have preferred state officials conduct a series of statewide public hearings to see how more teachers feel about the plan.

“Yes it is a concern,” McDonald said. “It’s important. It’s critical. It’s a big-time bill.

“This tops the list, so it’s important to me that we do this right the first time,” he continued. “We can’t afford to make a mistake, it’s just too expensive.”

During an initial hearing Wednesday, New Plymouth Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby, superintendent of his local school district, questioned the accuracy of the fiscal note attached to the bill. Kerby pointed out that the bill does not account for the cost of a requirement to have the state’s colleges of education independently and randomly review teacher evaluations. Otter’s education liaison Marilyn Whitney estimated those reviews would cost $1 million each year, a cost later tacked onto the bill’s financial estimate.

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Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree

House Education Vice Chair Julie VanOrden is a strong supporter of the bill and was heavily involved with the negotiations that led to its drafting.

VanOrden said the bill is a great compromise and will give all teachers a raise every year. She said the bill’s drafters took care to ensure “there is nothing in there that will harm teachers.”

She is meeting with each of the committee’s other members – 11 other Republicans and three Democrats.

When asked if the bill will die in committee, VanOrden considered her response for several seconds, then said, “maybe.”

On Thursday, VanOrden thought the bill was dead for sure. By Friday, she said she was a little more optimistic.

“I heard concerns there is not enough money put into it, that salaries aren’t going up high enough,” VanOrden said. “I’ve heard concerns it is too much money, like you said. Is it sustainable? I’ve heard a question about whether there is too much accountability. (Others say there is) not enough accountability.”

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee swiftly and unanimously killed what had been viewed as a companion to the career ladder – a proposal for tiered teacher licensure. The House could still take up tiered licensure and pass it, but VanOrden said killing tiered licensure was part of the deal struck in crafting the career ladder bill.

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Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise

Rep. Hy Kloc did not commit to voting one way or the other Friday. He called the bill “a good start,” but expressed several reservations. When lawmakers were given a sneak preview of the bill Feb. 27, Kloc marked up the margins of the draft legislation, pointing out each of his concerns. He agrees with some of the Idaho Education Association’s objections, saying he wants higher overall salaries. Kloc also expressed concern about the lack of a contingency plan and said the “underlying problem” with salary negotiations this year is that lawmakers and education groups do not appear to be on the same page.

Kloc said he will spend the coming days reviewing the plan in detail before deciding how to vote.

The timing of the bill was also problematic for some. It did not arrive until the 52nd day of the session, leaving little room for error before next week’s school budget vote.

VanOrden said the bill arrived late because groups were trying to strike a balance between the original State Board of Education blueprint and a competing plan from education stakeholders, which has not materialized as a bill. All the while, state officials and lawmakers were adding and subtracting multiple provisions to try to make the bill agreeable to more people.

The bill was introduced Wednesday, VanOrden said, out of respect for legislative deadlines and JFAC’s school budget vote Thursday.

House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, was away from the Legislature attending business meetings in Utah Thursday and Friday, VanOrden said.

What happens next?

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Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

Rep. Wendy Horman said she is already planning for contingencies in the public school budget in case the career ladder fails. Horman, a member of JFAC, plans to help set the public school budget and carry it on the House floor.

Timing is an issue. JFAC generally won’t consider a major funding initiative, such as the career ladder, unless it first passes the House or Senate.

If House Education kills the career ladder Tuesday, the proposal will be dead for the session. But even if House Education passes the bill Tuesday, legislative leaders would need to suspend floor rules and work quickly to bring it up for a vote before JFAC’s Thursday meeting.

One potential backup plan for budget writers is to scrap the career ladder and instead give all educators an across-the-board 3 percent raise next year, much like other state employees. Horman estimated the cost of giving all education employees a 3 percent raise is just over $27 million.

Under the career ladder, the state would spend $31.9 million next year, about 18 percent more.

“I have a number of scenarios prepared and some contingency plans, but until the Education Committee acts on a career ladder bill, it is very difficult to put in play any one of those scenarios,” Horman said.

During a brief interview Friday, JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said budget-writers will do all they can for teacher salaries, regardless of what happens to the career ladder. Bell said she hopes a solution is forthcoming, but she stressed budget writers don’t want to get out ahead of the teacher salary policy debate.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra has called for giving all teachers a 3 percent raise. She would do so while rolling out a career ladder pilot project in a handful of districts and charter schools.

Although State Board of Education member Rod Lewis has said this session marks a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to steer significant teacher pay raises through the Legislature, Horman said educators should not worry if the career ladder dies this year.

“This Legislature has an opportunity to deal with teacher salaries once a year,” Horman said. “Whatever we do this year about teacher salaries, we will be back here next year to work on that again.”