Statehouse roundup, 3.3.20: JFAC OKs 4.1 percent increase in public school spending

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee unanimously called for increasing public school spending by $78.7 million next year, a 4.1 percent increase above current levels.

Over the course of an hour Tuesday, JFAC passed the seven budgets that come together to make up the $1.9 billion public school budget.

But there could be more on the way. If the Senate passes House Bill 523, Gov. Brad Little’s five-year, $223 million plan to increase teacher pay, legislators would add about $8 million to the budget through a “trailer bill” following the original school budgets. If that happens, the overall increase for public schools would total 4.6 percent, JFAC Vice Chairwoman Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said.

“This is still a very solid budget for our public schools,” Horman said.

Budget highlights include:

  • $24 million in new funding for teacher salaries through the career ladder. This would “true up” or align the full-time employee counts in each cell of the ladder.
  • $11.5 million to pay for growth, which is estimated to increase by 203 “support units.” In budget lingo, a support unit is roughly the equivalent of one classroom.
  • $7.4 million to increase discretionary spending to help cover the cost of health insurance.
  • $6 million for minimum salaries — in line with a 2019 law to increase the minimum salary to $40,000 over two years.
  • $3.1 million for Idaho’s K-3 literacy initiative, which would make the entire $26.1 million literacy budget an ongoing line item.
  • $2 million in increased funding for the advanced opportunities program.
  • $1 million for professional development that districts and charters could use toward training or resources to support social-emotional learning, suicide prevention or students’ mental wellness.

“I am just really excited that education continues to be the top priority,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said.

Gov. Brad Little and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.

Ybarra said the budget addresses three of her four top priorities: literacy proficiency, teacher pay raises and social-emotional learning support. The Legislature did not fund her fourth priority, a $500,000 request to expand the mastery-based education program. After the budget hearing, Ybarra said she will continue to support schools as they transition to mastery. Even though the funding increase was not approved, the mastery program remains in place for districts and charters.

“What that means is the work will still continue; we will still support schools in going that direction,” Ybarra said.

While the public school budget received unanimous support, there were some fireworks as legislators turned their attention to the smaller budget for the superintendent of public instruction’s office. After some debate, JFAC voted to move the State Department of Education’s IT and data management programs to the State Board of Education. Along with the move, budget writers took $2.7 million and 18 full-time positions away from Ybarra’s SDE and gave them to the State Board in order to centralize IT and data management under the State Board.

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, and Horman said legislators believe the move will result in greater efficiency having IT and data management located under the State Board’s umbrella.

“This has been an ongoing conversation for a number of years to try and get things together under one roof,” Crabtree said.

Ybarra called the move “a little shocking.”

“I remain concerned about such a massive change, but I will make sure, my No. 1 job, is to make sure that districts have what they need and that is what I will be working on to make sure there is no disruption to districts,” Ybarra said.

JFAC approved the change in the superintendent’s office budget on a 15-5 vote, and the IT and data management transition would be set to occur July 1.

Overall, the JFAC-approved budget is a bit closer in line with Little’s recommended 4.1 percent increase than Ybarra’s proposed 5.3 percent increase.

While next year’s budget includes a $78.7 million spending increase, it’s a smaller increase than budget writers have approved over the past five years. Over that time, increases of $100 million or more were the norm.

“We want to be cautious with spending and efficient in our management like we did today to try to do a better job for the people,” Crabtree said.

The public school budget will next be broken down into seven bills that still need to pass the House and Senate. The public school budget is Idaho’s largest general fund expense each year and has recently accounted for about 49 percent of all general fund spending. Once the remaining budget is written and the Senate takes action on House Bill 523, it will become clear what percent of the state budget will be dedicated to public schools next year.

Advanced Opportunities bill derailed

A divided Senate Education Committee killed a bill that would have paved the way for private school students to tap into Idaho’s advanced opportunities program.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett said he wanted private school students to have the same access to advanced opportunities, which provides students a taxpayer-funded $4,125 allowance to take Advanced Placement tests or college-level dual credit classes.

He pegged the initial costs at $200,000, and said the cost of the program could top out at $400,000.

Senate Education took mixed testimony on Senate Bill 1328 during a truncated hearing Tuesday afternoon. Private school students testified in favor. The Idaho Education Association and the Idaho School Boards Association testified against the bill.

The debate centered on constitutional questions — and whether SB 1328 would improperly siphon public dollars to support private schools. Thayn downplayed the constitutional question, since advanced opportunities dollars go not to schools but to students. Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said SB 1328 could require public schools to administer courses and programs on behalf of private school students. ”I think this is a real slippery slope,” she said.

The committee agreed, voting 5-3 to hold the bill in committee, killing it for the session.

Short work in the Senate

During a late afternoon session, the Senate gave unanimous approval to two education-related bills:

  • House Bill 395, which could pave the way for Lewis-Clark State College to offer graduate degrees.
  • House Bill 480, which would allow high school graduates who are fluent in foreign languages to receive a “seal of biliteracy” on their diploma.

Both bills now head to Little’s desk.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.



Clark Corbin

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