Democrats: Otter shortchanges schools

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House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, talk to reporters Tuesday. Discussing the spate of voter-approved property tax levies used to balance school budgets, Rusche said, “Idaho budget policy is starving schools.”

Legislative Democrats will soon introduce a series of bills modeled after recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force.

But Democrats also said Otter’s State of the State address shortchanged public education — both in terms of dollars and scope.

“Make no mistake, no school district in Idaho has gone to a four-day school week, has dropped extracurriculars or increased class size because they hoped it would provide a better education to their children,” House Minority Leader John Rusche said during a news conference Tuesday. “They did it because they were desperately going broke.”

On Monday, Otter unveiled a 2014-15 budget proposal that would fold about $55 million into task force recommendations — a broad canvas with a collective cost of roughly $350 million. The bulk of the money in Otter’s request, $35 million, would go into restoring school districts’ “operational budgets,” money that can be used for employee benefits, utilities costs or other purposes.

The state could easily put $90 million to $100 million into education and task force recommendations by paring back Otter’s plans to fold more than $100 million into state savings accounts or tax cuts, said Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “And that’s probably where we ought to be looking.”

In December, Burgoyne and other Democrats unveiled four bills based on the task force recommendations — drawing public support from Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.

Those bills will be introduced “very shortly,” Burgoyne said, but Democrats are coordinating with Otter and Luna staffers on the rollout.

Democrats also put in a pitch for early education. Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, is working on a bill to allow school districts to run three-year pre-K pilots. The programs would be funded with public and private dollars.

“While ‘K-through-career’ sounds good, we submit that the governor has again missed an opportunity,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum, playing on Otter’s admonishment for Idahoans to rethink the course of education. “Based on all that is known about children’s brain development, we believe the governor should have called for ‘pre-K through career.’”