Funding committee wrestles with budget realities

A group of lawmakers took a closer look Thursday at potential winners and losers that would be created by switching up Idaho’s complicated school funding formula.

The Legislature’s Public School Funding Formula Interim Committee accepted a third draft of a proposed new funding model, but took no final action during a morning meeting at the Statehouse.

Committee members have not yet released a data spreadsheet that incorporates the new formula and illustrates what levels of funding local school districts and charters could expect after a change.

Rep. Wendy Horman and consultants from Education Commission of the States suggested the formula would be released to the public Nov. 2.

The committee’s work to rewrite the funding formula is important because education is Idaho’s largest annual expense. The funding formula drives how the state sends about $1.8 billion worth of general fund spending to school districts and charters each year.

Increasingly, educators, administrators, policymakers and taxpayers are watching how tweaks to the formula could alter the funding levels districts receive.

Horman and other committee members have said the Legislature will hold districts harmless during the initial transition. That means a district or charter won’t receive less money under the new formula than it did during the 2017-18 school year. But that hold-harmless transition period is only temporary, perhaps lasting as long as three years.

After that — or in the absence of true hold-harmless provisions — several districts could be squeezed.

The funding formula committee is only really looking at the formula, which determines how to divide up the money the Legislature provides for schools. Specific funding levels, including any budget increases or additional state funding to hold districts harmless, would be separate decisions for the Legislature.

By one measure, Eastern Idaho’s Sugar-Salem School District is the poorest in Idaho. Under the latest draft of the funding formula presented Thursday, Sugar-Salem could see its annual budget cut by nearly $450,000 if the Legislature doesn’t protect the district or increase funding levels.

Similarly, Kimberly Superintendent Luke Schroeder frets over a “best-case scenario” where his district loses $500,000 a year.

Horman has pledged to protect districts in that situation initially, but it is unclear what would happen to those schools after any transition-period funding protections are phased out.

Depending on weighting factors and whether proposed large school district funding protections are implemented, even the state’s two largest districts could see a funding cut. One funding simulation under the latest formula draft shows Boise losing $5.4 million, or nearly 4 percent. Meanwhile, West Ada could take a $12.5 million hit under one simulation, which would correspond to nearly 6 percent of its annual budget.

Linda Clark

“I don’t believe we agree on what we’re going to take forward,” said State Board of Education President Linda Clark, a former West Ada superintendent. “I have heard significant concerns from a significant portion of our constituency. (Large) districts representing more than 30 percent of all students have expressed serious concern about the model.”

Education Commission of the States consultant Michael Griffith has taken pains to say the proposed formula presented Thursday is not final and that the public should not be alarmed about potential funding changes at this point. Griffith said the consultants want to tweak the formula before releasing it to the public.

There is also a potential trap lurking within the formula for certain schools unless other changes are made. Griffith warned Thursday that small school districts that aren’t experiencing growth and have comparatively small populations of at-risk and English language learners would get absolutely hammered under changing to a new model that is based on enrollment, rewards growth and provides additional funding for at-risk students.

“No matter how I work it, groups of school districts see very large decreases in funding,” Griffith said.

The funding formula interim committee (or perhaps the Legislature) still must decide on what funding weights will be applied. Then the Legislature needs to approve a new formula by changing state law. Such a change would also trigger additional changes to existing law that reference support units or the current attendance-based model.

At its core, the new formula is being designed to be simpler and more predictable than the state’s current attendance-based model. Under the proposed change to an enrollment model, districts would multiply their student enrollment by a base level of per-pupil funding (say, $4,273.87). They would then add in funding weights for at-risk students, special education students, English language-learners and gifted and talented students, as well as determine whether they would be eligible for funding protections based on the size of their district or their district’s wealth.

Superintendents from several school districts including Caldwell, Kimberly, West Ada and Boise attended Thursday’s meeting. Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra pulled herself off the campaign trail to join the committee, of which she is a member. Her Democratic challenger Cindy Wilson also attended the meeting, as did Reps. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth and Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls.

The committee has scheduled a final meeting for Nov. 26 before its charter expires and it must hand its recommendations over to the 2019 Legislature.

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