Eastern Idaho schools want cuts reversed

Eastern Idaho school leaders made it clear Wednesday: reversing budget cuts tops their priority list for the 2014 legislative session.

Idaho Falls Leg preview
About 50 people attended a legislative preview meeting Wednesday in Idaho Falls, including Rep. Jeff Thompson, second from right, and Bonneville Superintendent Chuck Shackett, far right.

Teachers, principals, school board members and administrators from the Idaho Falls and Bonneville school districts met with local legislators during a 90-minute meeting in Idaho Falls.

“I can’t tell you how much we are all hurting,” Bonneville Superintendent Chuck Shackett said. “We cut $7 million out of our budget since 2009. We’ve released well over 80 staff members and lost our music and P.E. programs.”

Operational funding, sometimes called discretionary spending, has been a hot topic all year. Funding peaked at $25,696 per classroom unit in 2008-09, but lawmakers made deep cuts to the education budget in response to the Great Recession. Lawmakers restored some funding this year, but only to $20,000 per classroom unit.

In August, Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education unanimously recommended reversing those funding cuts.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s budget request for 2014-15 proposes an $16.5 million increase in operational funding – the first payment in a five-year plan to offset the cuts.

But some lawmakers said they can’t afford to wait five years.

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“The world is changing at a dynamic pace, and to wait another five years, as we heard today in a quote, ‘would tie the hands of students.’ If we have the money there, we need to get back to the levels of four or five years ago as soon as possible,” said. Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls.

Thompson, who sits on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, has helped set the public school budget and carry it on the House floor for the past three years.

Rep. Wendy Horman and Sen. Dean Mortimer, both Idaho Falls Republicans, agreed operational funding should be restored.

“Costs on the operational side of things are going up faster than other areas,” Mortimer said. “We have to address it.”

“There is a lot of consensus around that issue,” Horman said. “I think the question will just be the amount and how quickly we get it back into the budget.”

Idaho Falls Superintendent George Boland told Idaho Education News earlier this week that he favors holding off a year on another task force recommendation: a salary career ladder for teachers. He wants to shift the $42 million Luna requested for the career ladder to restore operational funding and teachers’ base salaries.

“That needs to be accelerated as rapidly as possible,” Boland said.

Educators also listed several other priorities:

  • Moving away from seat time and creating an education system based on content mastery.
  • Providing funding to recruit and retain teachers.
  • Maintaining flexibility with “use-it-or-lose-it” funding that allows districts to hire 9.5 percent fewer positions than the state pays for.
  • Expanding bandwidth capabilities of the Idaho Education Network.
  • Standing firm on the Idaho Core Standards, and providing funding to help districts continue to implement the standards and prepare for more rigorous assessments.
  • Continuing to support professional development.
  • Increasing funding to compensate for increased health care benefit costs.
  • Ensuring all new mandates are fully funded.

Although the meeting had been planned for months, it was nearly cancelled. Temperatures in Idaho Falls dropped below zero Wednesday, and a large power outage cancelled schools in the area and forced Bonneville leaders to find a new location for the meeting one hour before it was scheduled to begin.

“We didn’t want to cancel because it was so important to have us all here together,” Shackett said.

Despite the frigid temperatures and meeting relocation, 50 people attended the meeting.

Bonneville and Idaho Falls were the fifth and sixth largest districts in the state, respectively, based on enrollment last year.