Gov. Butch Otter praised lawmakers Thursday for their work on education issues during the recent legislative session, but declined to say whether he will convene a special session to address the potential loss of some $50 million in federal child support funding.
“Breaking it down, I would say education got an absolute ‘A,’ excellent, in fact, if there was higher grade than that, I would give it,” Otter said. “We started the session with an understanding that we needed to keep past promises. We worked hard to make sure that we got that and it was reflected, for the most part, in the votes in both the House and the Senate that put us on a course to satisfy task force recommendations.
“I would give the education portion of the grade an ‘A.’ (But) there is a lot of incompletes (in other areas).”
Otter praised lawmakers for passing a five-year, $125.5 million teacher salary career ladder plan, increasing school funding by 7.4 percent, investing millions in professional development training for teachers and partially restoring cuts to districts’ operations funding pools, a funding source sometimes referred to as discretionary spending.
“Check the record, find out when we’ve ever had a five-year plan and a five-year solution on education that was bought into, we voted for and signed and we signed on to it,” Otter said.
House Speaker Scott Bedke agreed.
“As I reflect on this session, I would have to say it was a monumental session,” said Bedke, R-Oakley. “Keep in mind we have 40-some-odd pretty new legislators, pretty good House members, and what was gratifying to me was to see them engage on these big issues.”
In light of District Judge Patrick Owen’s final Feb. 11 ruling voiding the Idaho Education Network statewide broadband contract, Otter said he expects a statewide broadband network to serve schools and state agencies in the future.
“The Idaho Education Network probably comes as close as Idaho ever has to fulfilling the constitutional mandate of free, uniform and thorough and common (public schools),” Otter said. “Everybody in the Legislature by their reaction and their making some moves to make sure the (network) continued this year is prescriptive of what is going to happen in the future. The Idaho Education Network is going to be, although it may come out under a different name.”
After Owen’s ruling, lawmakers scrambled to pass a $6.3 million plan to reimburse local school districts for securing their own broadband contracts next year. District officials appear to have saved the state $1.3 million in broadband costs after they negotiated emergency contingency contracts to keep schools wired this academic year.
At the end of the session, the House and Senate passed a concurrent resolution creating a legislative interim committee to study the issue and make recommendations for broadband service and governance. The resolution references “drastically reduced costs” districts appeared to achieve through local, short-term contracts.
“I would not expect those (savings) to go forward in the future,” Otter said. “We know of some areas where those economies have helped the local school districts … it speaks to more than just education. It speaks to libraries, it speaks to telemedicine, it speaks to the Department of Commerce and who knows what else we could possibly add to that.
“We have erased the mountains, we have shortened the distances,” Otter continued. “In the information age when you have a tool like that, it is not a tool that your are going to treat lightly. So there will be an (Idaho Education Network) in the future, whatever else we may call it, and it will be functioning for education, telemedicine, libraries and the economy.”
Otter met with reporters for about 45 minutes on Thursday in his Statehouse office for the annual post-legislative briefing. He was joined by Bedke, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and several department directors and staffers.
In past years, multiple committee chairmen and representatives of both political parties have joined him for the briefing, but many out-of-town legislators returned home after the Legislature adjourned at 1:36 a.m. last Saturday.