Mortimer backs 7.4 percent budget increase

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer has backed a 7.4 percent increase in public school funding next year.

Mortimer
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls

In doing so, Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, supports the overall number Gov. Butch Otter outlined in his budget request Jan. 12.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra has called for a slightly smaller 6.4 percent increase in K-12 funding for next year.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Mortimer outlined budget scenarios with the Senate Education Committee before presenting budget priorities Wednesday morning to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Mortimer didn’t mention the 7.4 percent budget increase during Wednesday’s presentation, but instead chose to highlight policy moves that should receive funding priority.

Mortimer said education committee members’ two highest priorities are increasing teacher pay and restoring cuts to districts’ discretionary funding budgets, a pool of money sometimes referred to as operations funding.

Along with teacher pay, Mortimer specifically backed increasing the minimum teacher salary from $31,750 — although he did not advocate for a specific dollar amount.

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“Starting salaries for teachers must be increased,” Mortimer told JFAC Wednesday. “(Legislators) state they are hearing from their school districts that teachers are leaving the state and profession for better paying jobs or they are simply not entering the proffession.

“This trend must stop.”

During an interview Tuesday, Idaho Education News asked Mortimer whether the increase in teacher pay he supports would be handled through a new career ladder form of compensation. Mortimer left his options open during the interview, but was slightly more revealing to JFAC.

“We are very close (to a salary proposal bill),” Mortimer said. “There is a willingness and legislation coming forth will put significant dollars into our salary-based apportionment wages and start addressing the issue of our starting pay.”

Last week, members of the Senate Education Committee were tentatively scheduled to consider a proposal for a tiered licensure certification plan and career ladder salary proposal – but the item was pulled at the last minute.

Monday was the deadline for introducing all new legislation in the Senate Education Committee, and it passed without any consideration of tiered licensure and the career ladder.

That doesn’t mean that those proposals are dead for the session though. New legislation could still be routed through a “privileged” committee, such as the Senate State Affairs Committee, and then directed back to Mortimer’s panel. Or, supporters could switch legislative chambers and introduce new bills in the House Education Committee, which is also a “privileged” committee with authority to introduce new bills following the 36th day of the legislative session.

Mortimer told Idaho Education News he doesn’t favor propping up the state’s existing salary reimbursement grid.

“From the standpoint of the two education committees, the emphasis is on trying to adopt a new compensation program or the career ladder,” Mortimer said. “The reason for that is I think it takes us to a whole new level, and I don’t think there is a desire to stay with our existing system.”

Mortimer and Senate Education Committee members’ other budget priorities include:

  • Increasing funding for teacher professional development training and I.T/technology upgrades.
  • Supporting advanced opportunities such as dual credit or concurrent enrollment courses and scholarships.
  • Paying for college and career counseling for Idaho students.

JFAC member Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, pushed Mortimer to share specific dollar amounts for budget recommendations. Mortimer replied that he has some specific numbers, but different members of the education committee have slightly different perspectives and he encouraged members of the two committees to get together individually.

Mortimer plays a central role in all education budget decisions because he serves as a member of JFAC in addition to his position as chairman of Senate Education. Before this session, lawmakers made a practice of avoiding appointing committee chairmen to JFAC.

“I’m working hard to see us get those dollars into education, to improve the education process and to recruit and retain great professionals because we appreciate the job that is being done in our schools,” Mortimer said.

After Wednesday’s budget hearing, JFAC co-chair Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, praised Mortimer and emphasized that education spending will be the be budget-writers top priority this year.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do on it, and it is the most important part of the budget,” Cameron said.

Typically, the public school budget is the state’s largest expense and accounts for about 47 percent of general fund spending.

Members of JFAC are expected to set their budget parameters Thursday morning and begin setting individual state agency budgets next week. The public school budget is tentatively scheduled to be set March 12, which would make it one of the final spending plans to be crafted this year.