Budget proposal draws widespread backing

Not since 2007 — before the Great Recession, and during Butch Otter’s first year as governor — have public schools been in line for a budget increase exceeding 5 percent.

And school superintendents and education stakeholders say the money is a long time coming.

boland
Idaho Falls district Superintendent George Boland

“It’s the best appropriation we’ve had in a long time,” Idaho Falls district Superintendent George Boland said this week, after legislative budget-writers approved the 5.1 percent budget increase. “It’s hard to be anything other than optimistic regarding the recommended appropriation.”

Boland isn’t alone. As education officials pore over the budget and its details, their reactions have been overwhelmingly favorable.

Boise school superintendent Don Coberly praised Otter for taking the lead to reverse recession-era cuts to district budgets, and praised the co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Maxine Bell for going to bat to boost teacher pay. While testifying against a bill to offer $10 million in tax breaks for private school scholarship donors, Phil Homer of the Idaho Association of School Administrators went out of his way to applaud the budget proposal, saying it signaled an “upward trend” for public schools.

Penni Cyr
Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association

But one year’s budget won’t fix all of K-12’s ails, said Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association. “Teachers will still have to buy classroom supplies and other things out of their own pocket,” she said. “But it’s a movement in the right direction.”

The $66 million increase more or less aligns with two initiatives — which helps explain the widespread support.

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Money for districts. The state would put $35 million back into “operational funding,” a fund districts can use to cover anything from health care costs to utilities and transportation. The state cut $82.5 million in these so-called “discretionary” funds during the recession, and accounting for growth, Otter’s budget office believes it will take $113 million to make schools whole.

Restoring the operational funding has been a high priority for superintendents and trustees. While education stakeholders have spoken repeatedly, and with one voice, in support of all 20 recommendations from Otter’s education reform task force, administrators and trustees have said the operational funding is an urgent need.

Don Coberly
Don Coberly, Boise district superintendent

Operational funding is a versatile budget source. Coberly says the new money will help the district hold down class sizes, boost teacher pay and reduce local property tax levies — in part, because a wellness program has helped the district avoid large increase in health care costs. In Idaho Falls, Boland is bracing for a tougher squeeze. “Ultimately, that (funding increase) could end up being pass-through money based on what kind of health insurance increase we get and how we structure our health benefit plans.”

Money for teachers. Another $29.7 million would go into teacher raises. The budget puts $13.9 million into a 1 percent base pay raise and a plan to boost the minimum teacher pay from $31,000 to $31,750. Another $15.8 million would fund leadership “premiums,” which could go to teachers who take on mentoring roles, teach multiple subjects or work in hard-to-fill teaching jobs.

The leadership premiums are a first step on the task force’s biggest initiative: a $250 million career ladder plan to boost teacher pay. But the 1 percent raise is important to hold together a stakeholder coalition. The IEA’s support of the premiums hinges on the 1 percent base salary increase.

But before the K-12 budget works its way through the Legislature — and perhaps to Otter’s desk — voters in districts across Idaho will consider a series of supplemental property tax levies Tuesday. The list of districts seeking levies includes Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell, Vallivue, Lakeland, Cassia County and Minidoka County.

Clark Corbin contributed to this report.