(UPDATED, 5:41 p.m., to reflect the Senate Education Committee’s Thursday meeting agenda.)
A divided Idaho House passed state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s $300,000 rural schools center bill following a lengthy debate Wednesday morning.
House Bill 628 would create a cooperative rural schools center serving 13 North Idaho districts. Ybarra and sponsoring Rep. Judy Boyle say the center is necessary to provide rural, geographically isolated districts with needed resources they could not otherwise afford.
“Those small districts are struggling even to have a superintendent, to have a math teacher or an English teacher, much less any specialists,” said Boyle, R-Midvale. “$300,000 is not much to spend for our rural kids.”
The centers would be partially based on a series of rural centers in neighboring Washington. Those centers sell their services and personnel to participating school districts, with a 9 percent administration fee added to the bill.
The proposed center would offer a host of available services for sale, including IT support, nursing, financial management, public relations, grant writing, special education services and more. In 2016-17, the pilot center would initially offer just two services, which have yet to be identified.
Several lawmakers objected, saying they worry about where the $300,000 would come from. Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Co-Chairwoman Maxine Bell told Idaho Education News the committee would have to reconvene and write a supplemental budget bill to fund the center.
But Bell voted against the rural schools bill, saying Ybarra had already pitched the proposal in her public school budget presentation. JFAC declined to fund the center, and Bell appeared frustrated with the House Education Committee for advancing the proposal.
Bell said she would oppose Boyle’s recommendation to find the $300,000 within the Public Education Stabilization Fund savings account.
Other lawmakers also worried about how the center would operate and whether it is a true pilot project, since there is no timeline established to wind the program down or repeal it.
“There are a lot of questions I don’t believe have been answered,” said Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, who opposed the bill.
Ybarra pushed the bill Friday, hoping to see it introduced and gain a little late-session legislative momentum heading into next year. But House Education surprised Ybarra by placing the bill on a fast track and sending it straight to the House floor.
The last-minute manuever seemed to draw opposition from several key legislators, in addition to Bell. House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt voted no Wednesday, as did VanOrden, his vice chair, and several JFAC Republicans.
But the bill did pass the House 44-26, and it heads to the Senate. With lawmakers pushing to adjourn the session before the week’s end, it is unclear whether senators will consider the bill.
The Senate Education Committee has a meeting scheduled for Thursday morning — possibly its final meeting of the 2016 session. The rural bill is not on the agenda, which means the bill may be derailed.
In other legislative action Wednesday.
Leadership premiums. The House voted 46-22 to pass a bill designed to increase salary bonuses for teachers who go above and beyond.
House Bill 627 would increase the minimum value of the so-called leadership premiums from $850 to $900. Sponsoring Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, also used the bill to clarify that $900 would be the minimum bonus, whether a teacher works full- or part-time.
Lawmakers are still bristling at an error-filled state report released earlier this month that said some school districts awarded bonuses of less than $850, even though lawmakers believed they had established an $850 minimum. Other lawmakers were upset that several districts awarded bonuses to all teachers, and not teachers who take on leadership roles, serve as mentors or accept hard-to-fill positions.
Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, argued against the bill and questioned the logic of expanding the program, since districts appeared to use the money improperly.
“To me the appropriate response is to repeal the statute, rather than increase the amount,” Barbieri said.
The bill next heads to the Senate, and Senate Education will consider the bill Thursday morning.
Although the bill increases the value of bonuses, it relies on the same state funding levels to award the bonuses — meaning fewer teachers would be eligible for premiums.
Career-technical education. The House quickly and unanimously passed a bill to increase pay for certain career-technical teachers.
House Bill 630 calls for the state to send an additional $3,000 to districts for each career-technical teacher holding an occupational specialist certificate.
VanOrden said the bill is designed to help recruit and retain career-technical teachers and to avoid the closure of such programs.
VanOrden estimated her bill would cost a little more than $1.7 million next year — money that was not included in the education budgets or the supplemental education budget bills written so far.
The bill also must still pass the Senate, and Senate Education has it on its Thursday morning agenda.