Statehouse roundup, 3.7.17: Rural pilot program passes House, barely

A sharply divided House endorsed one of state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s top legislative priorities: a pilot project to support rural schools.

The rural schools bill now goes to the Senate, where a similar proposal stalled in 2016. But the pilot barely survived the House Tuesday morning. It passed on a 37-33 vote — over the objections of critics who lamented the $300,000 cost and the creation of a new program.

House Bill 223 would test a Rural Education Support Network — a cooperative designed to help schools share hard-to-find teachers, collaborate on courses or stretch limited administrative dollars.

Proponents said a rural network would fill a void in Idaho schools. They say rural superintendents fill several other roles — sometimes in the classroom, and sometimes behind the wheel of a school bus — and simply do not have the time to work with their colleagues and look for ways to share resources. And through collaboration, supporters say, administrators will be able to improve learning opportunities for rural students.

“Those kids are not throwaway kids,” said Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie VanOrden also debated for the bill. A year ago, she opposed the rural initiative — but this year, the Pingree Republican supported giving the pilot program a chance.

But Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, debated against the bill, saying it would create “an additional layer of bureaucracy.” Citing the projected $300,000 in startup costs, Rep. Ron Nate said the money could be better spent hiring eight new teachers.

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“We have to be very careful when we create new spending items,” said Nate, R-Rexburg.

Technically, HB 223 does not appropriate state money. The budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee would have to follow up with a separate spending bill — provided the rural bill navigates its way through the Legislature.

That proved to be a tough go on Tuesday, just five days after Ybarra’s rural bill passed the House Education Committee unanimously.

Three members of House GOP leadership opposed Ybarra: Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star, Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane of Nampa and Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude of Nampa.

Five of JFAC’s eight Republicans opposed the bill — including co-chair Maxine Bell of Jerome, and Horman, who supported the 2016 version of the rural bill.

And Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, defected after supporting the bill in committee. As late as Monday, Moon was listed as the bill’s floor sponsor. Instead, Coeur d’Alene Republican Rep. Paul Amador wound up sponsoring the bill.

JFAC approves money for new reading test

Moving quickly Tuesday morning, JFAC approved a hold-the-line office budget for Ybarra.

The budget is significant for one line item that did make the cut — and for two items that did not make the cut.

The $14.2 million general fund budget includes $100,000 to replace the Idaho Reading Indicator, the test the state uses to identify at-risk readers. For nearly 20 years, kindergarten through third-grade students have taken some form of the IRI.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra made her budget pitch to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Jan. 26.

Ybarra wants to retire the IRI, and she isn’t alone. A State Board of Education working group supports changing the exam. (Click here to learn more about the push to replace the IRI.)

The $100,000 would cover the first year of a five-year process to develop a new test. And that figures to be a down payment. The replacement job will cost about $2.2 million over five years, with costs approaching $500,000 in 2018-19, said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

Ybarra has already selected the vendor that could replace the IRI, Dallas-based Istation.

Notably, two items don’t appear in Ybarra’s office budget:

  • The budget contains no money to train school administrators who conduct teacher evaluations. This line item has been a tug of war between Ybarra and Gov. Butch Otter. Ybarra sought $300,000 for training, and wanted to retain control over the job; Otter wants $2.5 million, and wants the State Board of Education to handle the training. JFAC is scheduled to set the State Board’s budget Friday. Evaluation data problems are a sore point for legislators, since this data will be used to award teacher pay raises under the career ladder salary law.
  • The budget also contains no money for Ybarra’s rural pilot. Typically, JFAC writes “trailer” budget bills to fund new programs created during a legislative session, and the rural network could fall under that heading.

JFAC approved the budget for Ybarra’s office on a 20-0 vote. Both houses must approve the budget, and send it to Otter’s desk.

School-based Medicaid bill awaits an overhaul

The Senate will have a chance to rewrite a bill designed to break an interagency impasse over school-based Medicaid services.

And the bill figures to get a significant overhaul, as lawmakers and education lobbyists try to break the impasse.

As now written, Senate Bill 1095 would set up an interagency committee, designed to help school districts navigate the Medicaid process.

Medicaid covers about $34 million a year in services for special-needs students — paying for physical therapy, counseling and other services. But the Department of Health and Welfare and education groups are at loggerheads over the billing process. Health and Welfare can, and sometimes does, impose civil penalties against schools that fail to fill out their paperwork accurately, to the chagrin of school leaders and education groups. (Click here to learn more about the dispute over Medicaid services.)

The Senate Education Committee moved SB 1095 to the floor for amendments. But several committee members expressed concerns about giving the bill a heavy rewrite on the Senate floor, where any lawmaker can suggest any amendment. And Sen. Bob Nonini made an unsuccessful bid to kill the bill outright, saying he was frustrated at being dragged into the dispute between Health and Welfare and education groups.

SB 1095 is racing against time. If senators amend the bill this week, Mortimer plans to bring the bill back to his Senate Education Committee for a public hearing next week. The bill still needs to pass both houses, and legislative leaders hope to adjourn the 2017 on March 24.

Earlier Tuesday, JFAC rejected a request from Otter and his Department of Health and Welfare, which would fund a contract to help schools fill out Medicaid paperwork. Health and Welfare wanted $155,200 to hire two employees to oversee the third-party contract. Districts and charters would pay the day-to-day costs for the contracting service.

Senate votes to restore bus budget

The vote turned out to be lopsided, but the Senate spent some time Tuesday afternoon discussing a restoration in state funding for school busing.

Senate Bill 1123 would allow districts and charters to receive state money to bus students to field trips “and other offsite learning opportunities.” This could cost the state $2.25 million to $2.5 million a year.

The state funding will free up local school dollars for other needs, and help finance field trips. “A student needs to have a well-rounded curriculum,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom.

Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, debated against the bill, and questioned why the state is putting money into education frills. But several senators took turns defending SB 1123, which passed, 34-1. It now heads to the House.

Safe routes to school

During their Tuesday afternoon session, the Senate also endorsed a bill designed to encourage sidewalks and bike paths to schools.

Senate Bill 1121 doesn’t allocate any state funding. Instead, it simply creates a fund to accommodate money earmarked for state routes to school — including, perhaps, future state funding.

Several senators resisted the idea of creating the fund, but SB 1121 passed on a 27-8 vote. It now goes to the House.

Civics test

The House voted 55-14 to pass a concurrent resolution aimed at adding Idaho history and government questions to the state’s existing civics test.

Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, pushed HCR 14. Zollinger’s resolution calls on the State Board of Education to add 25 Idaho questions (or at least 20 percent of the test) to the civics test students must pass in order to graduate high school.

The test is based on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service‘s citizenship test.

Zollinger said the Idaho-based questions will lead to a more informed electorate and inspire enthusiasm for Idaho civics, history and government.

Opponents said the state already requires students to take too many tests. They also said designing curriculum and writing 25 new test questions would create a new burden for overworked educators.

HCR 14 next heads to the Senate.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.