Education themes dominate budget hearing

In keeping with the theme of this year’s legislative session, Idahoans emphasized that education funding was their No. 1 priority during a budget hearing Friday.

JFAC session, 2.14.14
Education was a recurring theme in Friday’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee public hearing.

Of the 44 people who testified during the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s public hearing, 26 testified about the importance of education programs. Recurring themes included support for the Idaho Education Network broadband pipeline, recommendations issued last summer by Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education and the alternative state budget published by Idaho’s former chief economist Mike Ferguson.

McCall-Donnelly Joint School District Superintendent Glen Szymoniak and Meridian Joint School District information systems director Jerry Reininger called on lawmakers to support the broadband program despite funding uncertainties.

Lawmakers are considering a $14.45 million supplemental funding request, since federally administered payments are on hold as a federal contractor scrutinizes the Idaho Education Network contract.

“My district did not have the resources to be able to do this, and it’s really going to take leadership on the part of the state,” Szymoniak said.

As they have in several other legislative hearings this year, the Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho Association of School Administrators and Idaho Education Association joined forces to back the task force recommendations. The leaders of the three influential groups pleaded with lawmakers not to break up the recommendations, and urged them to restore recession-era cuts to districts’ operations budgets.

“The fact remains local district receive fewer dollars today per support unit than we received in 2009,” IASA Executive Director Rob Winslow said.

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Eagle Rock students, JFAC, 2.14.14
Derik Johnson and Shandy Gillman, students from Idaho Falls’ Eagle Rock Junior High School, urge the Legislature to increase education funding.

People traveled from as far away as Lewiston and Idaho Falls to speak at the hearing. Some highlights:

  • Three current and former Future Farmers of America backed a $604,000 agriculture education initiative before the Legislature.
  • Boise resident Valerie Candelaria testified in opposition to the new Idaho Core Standards. Candelaria said the new standards demand more resources and higher technology, and challenged Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s assertion that the new Core-aligned assessments will not cost more than previous statewide assessments.
  • Eagle Rock Junior High School students Derik Johnson and Shandy Gillman from Idaho Falls testified that funding cuts have resulted in bigger class sizes and left students and teachers with a set of textbooks that are falling apart at the bindings. Supporting an increase in teacher pay, Derik said: “We are losing some of our teachers because they can’t even afford to live in a state that has one of the lowest costs of living.”
StevenThayn64
Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett

JFAC leaders adjourned Friday’s budget hearing after two hours of testimony.

Nearly everyone who testified requested funding for at least one program or agency that was important to them, which prompted Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, to tweet, “What is interestingly absent is any discussion on ways to increase funding. How can we provide more funding? Are these folks asking to raise taxes?”

At least one person who testified appeared to appreciate the predicament facing lawmakers.

There are “much more causes than resources and I do not admire the decision point you find yourselves at,” FFA alum Seth Pratt said.