Otter K-12 budget receives favorable early reviews

David Peterson didn’t know exactly what to expect from his first Idaho State of the State address.

But the Nampa School District superintendent, six months into his new job, was pleased with what he heard Monday, as Gov. Butch Otter laid out his proposal to boost K-12 spending by more than $101 million.

David Peterson
Nampa school superintendent David Peterson, at left.

Peterson wasn’t alone. Even Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett offered praise for the budget. “It sounds like we’re all together on the same page,” Stennett, D-Ketchum, said during a legislative Democrats’ news conference Tuesday. “It’s a step.”

Here’s a closer look at three big components of Otter’s budget request, and some initial reactions:

Teacher salaries: Otter would put $31.9 million into the first phase of a “career ladder” to boost pay for starting teachers and veteran educators. The plan would cost a projected $175 million over five years.

However, the pay raises would be attached to a controversial tiered teacher licensure plan opposed by the Idaho Education Association. Peterson and Twin Falls School District Superintendent Wiley Dobbs say the State Board of Education’s rewritten proposal is an improvement over the original. However, he still hears from teachers who are skeptical and distrustful of a proposal that would ditch a licensing plan now based on experience and educational background.

Dobbs, a member of new state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s transition team, supports going forward. He doesn’t believe the Legislature will boost teacher pay unless the raises are tied to student performance metrics. And the raises would help address teacher turnover problems. “I’m willing to start with this idea, as long as we remain flexible.”

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, says the plan will help rural schools in his Eastern Idaho legislative district. “We can’t keep our teachers,” Siddoway, chairman of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee, told Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “It’s 50 percent and 70 percent new teachers, year in and year out.” But House Minority Leader John Rusche is skeptical. The Lewiston Democrat fears students will get caught in the crossfire of a debate that pits accountability against adequate compensation.

Operational funding: Otter doubled down on former state superintendent Tom Luna’s initial request from September, proposing to boost districts’ “operational funding” by $20 million. That’s a step toward restoring these budgets to pre-recession levels, but it would take an additional $41 million to bring this budget back to pre-recession levels.

Operational funding remains a high priority for school officials — as Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association and Rob Winslow of the Idaho Association of School Administrators told the Senate Education Committee Tuesday. Not surprisingly, Peterson and Dobbs would like the Legislature to improve on Otter’s request.

If the $20 million request goes through, Nampa would receive about a $900,000 share. The district is past due to update curriculum, but Peterson said it would cost about $2 million for a needed rewrite of reading and language arts curriculum. Peterson would like to put some operational dollars into increased staffing, but that’s not likely to happen.

Wiley Dobbs II
Wiley Dobbs, Twin Falls district superintendent

Twin Falls has its own infrastructure needs. On average, district computers are eight years old. The district replaced its K-5 reading textbook series, but that’s the only textbook change the district has made in at least six years, Dobbs said.

Increasing the operational funding is a top priority for superintendents, said Boise School District Superintendent Don Coberly. But Coberly said he believes Otter is trying to strike a balance between the superintendents’ request and trying to fund a “substantial increase” in teacher salaries.

Idaho Education Network: Otter wants to put another $8.9 million into the cash-strapped high school broadband system. But he also wants to rebid the network’s 2009 contract, overturned in November by District Judge Patrick Owen. The state is also encouraging school districts to apply for federally administered “e-Rate” dollars on their own, since the contract dispute has left the state’s payments on hold for nearly two years.

But this puts districts on a deadline. In order to apply for the e-Rate dollars, they must put the project out to bid and complete the bidding process by late March.

Nampa shouldn’t have much trouble applying for e-Rate dollars. The district already uses its own contractor for broadband at all grade levels, since this contractor offers more bandwidth than the Idaho Education Network can provide Nampa’s high schools. The district should be able to piggyback the high school project to its annual application for other e-Rate dollars.

Boise, meanwhile, has already sent out bids to expand its broadband system — whether the e-Rate money comes through or not. “We have several levels of bids, just in case,” Coberly said.

Dobbs says the March deadline will be “very challenging” for Twin Falls, but he believes his district can pull it off. He said he is more concerned for smaller districts — the very districts that rely on remote, online classes to plug holes in curriculum. He questions whether rural districts have the staffing to handle the added paperwork.

Otter’s plan for the network “seems kind of haphazard,” Rusche said. The top priority should be to rewrite the contract to 2015 needs, and restore the flow of e-Rate dollars to the state.