Chairman’s bill phases out budget flexibility

(UPDATED, 4 p.m., Wednesday with comments from State Department of Education and the Idaho Education Association)

The House Education Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to introduce a new bill to phase out the “use it or lose it” budget flexibility program.

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Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, brought the bill, saying the program served its purpose as districts and the state emerged from the recession.

Each year, the state sends money to school districts to pay for teachers based on a funding formula. “Use it or lose it” allows districts to hire 9.5 percent fewer teachers than the state funds.

“It was put forth as a lifeline during the economic challenges that we had,” DeMordaunt said. “Now that we have the opportunity to provide more money for our school districts, we want to make sure that there are teachers in those classrooms.”

DeMordaunt’s bill would keep the program intact through 2014-15. Beginning in 2015-16, the state would reduce that 9.5 percent funding flexibility by 1 percent each year for each district in which the average class size was at least one student larger than the statewide average.

For 2012-13, 88 school districts hired fewer teachers than the state funded, while 27 districts hired more.

Lawmakers spent fewer than 10 minutes discussing the proposal Wednesday, and none spoke for or against it. No testimony was taken Wednesday – in keeping with legislative practice for introductory bill hearings. But educators and school officials will be able to testify when the bill comes back to the House Education Committee for a full hearing.

The hearing has yet to be scheduled, but could take place as early as next week.

Last year, lawmakers extended the “use it or lose it” program, and it cleared the House and the Senate with very little opposition.

The program is set to expire this year, and if the Legislature doesn’t act, it would be repealed completely.

DeMordaunt said he structured the bill to phase out the program, so districts would not be caught off guard.

“What school districts need is some predictability here, they need to see what road we are headed down,” he said.

In December, Idaho Falls and Bonneville school district representatives listed maintaining “use it or lose it” as a top priority heading into the 2014 session.

After the meeting, Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr said the absence of data documenting true class sizes in schools makes the bill problematic. Cyr said IEA leaders would rather see a one-year sunset clause, or extension, applied to the “use it or lose it” funding program so that class size data can be developed and shared. Once complete data is available, lawmakers and education groups could then reconsider “use it or lose it,” Cyr said.

“There is no data, no analysis,” Cyr said. “That still needs to be done and we think it’s a little premature to advance a bill.”

Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Education, said the data DeMordaunt’s bill would be tied to does not exist and is not collected. However, IEA officials introduced Senate Bill 1326, which would require the collection of such data if the bill becomes law.

Overall, Cyr stressed that the IEA’s goal is for schools to have “workable” class sizes so that students can interact with teachers more and receive the best education possible.

DeMordaunt said school districts “are in a panic” and “rightly concerned” that the funding flexibility would completely disappear.

Continue to follow Idaho Education News for coverage of this bill and its implications for school districts. Click here for Kevin Richert’s detailed report on the use it or lose it program.

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