Deja vu: New school budget mirrors old one

After nearly a week of legislative wrangling, the hotly anticipated new school budget that surfaced Wednesday is … almost exactly the same as the one the Senate defeated seven days ago.

For starters, the $1.308 billion general fund bottom line is exactly the same.

Raising minimum teacher salaries to $31,000?

That’s in the new one, just like before.

A 1.5 percent increase in discretionary spending?

That’s back.

Earmarking $11.3 million to unfreeze two years of experience on the teachers’ salary table?

Yep, the same as before.

Setting aside more than $4.8 million to hire more math and science teachers?

Ditto.

Providing $21 million in one-time money for merit pay and allowing districts to use 40 percent of the money for professional development for Common Core standards?

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Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert

Yes and yes.

“The dollar amount is the same, the approach is the same and that’s the direction we’re heading,” JFAC co-chairman Dean Cameron said. “Our goal all along was to try to provide the best public schools budget we could and try to provide the best budget for kids we could.”

So what’s different and what was all the fuss about?

The operations division budget includes slight tweaks to reference Senate Bill 1199, the budget-fix bill that advanced quickly through the Legislature on Wednesday.

Instead of lumping $13.4 million into a single line item for technology, the new budget splits those items, but still arrives at the same $13.4 million total.

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Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls

Under the new-look budget, $10.4 million will be sent to districts and charter schools for technology and wireless infrastructure. The remaining $3 million will be available for grants for technology pilot programs, as outlined in SB 1199.

Major aspects of the budget cleared JFAC 16-4. Republican Sens. Cliff Bayer, Boise; Dean Mortimer, Idaho Falls; Sheryl Nuxoll, Cottonwood; and Steve Vick, Dalton Gardens, continued to oppose the budget – just as they did in JFAC on March 4 and just as they did on the Senate floor March 27 when the original bill died.

Mortimer said he continues to favor giving districts more for discretionary money, which is why he continued to object.

“There has to be a balance and I just didn’t see that balance between the salaries and benefit portion and the operational portion,” he said.

Even though he didn’t like the budget, Mortimer said he did not want to push a competing plan and risk extending the session even longer. Instead, he plans to continue the debate next year, when he said the loss of use-it-or-lose-it spending flexibility could put districts under an even greater strain.

“We are far enough into the legislative session and we have had a sufficient discussion that I didn’t feel like it was beneficial to prolong the process,” Mortimer said.

However, Republican Sen. Steven Thayn of Emmett switched his “no” vote to a vote of support on Wednesday. “We had our discussion, we lost, and I still think there could have been some adjustments to it to get a little bit more discretionary, but I didn’t see that voting against it was going to do any good,” Thayn told Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

The budget bill — perhaps the last item lawmakers will consider before fleeing the Statehouse and adjourning for the year — is expected to be heard first in the Senate on Thursday morning. Assuming it clears the Senate, its final stop will be the House floor.