Overhauling the way Idaho funds schools could cost $131 million

POCATELLO — Lawmakers got their first look at the potential costs to change the way Idaho schools receive state funding — and cost estimates reached $131 million.

“This is a particularly complex and potentially expensive endeavor,” said state budget policy analyst Paul Headlee.

Idaho’s 10-member funding formula committee met Tuesday at Idaho State University to discuss cost projections and data and gather public input. The lawmakers are looking at rewriting Idaho’s complex formula for carving up more than $1.5 billion in K-12 funding.

The daytime portion of the meeting focused on three potential changes driving up overhaul costs:

  • Switching to an enrollment-based funding model, instead of a model based on average daily attendance.
  • Beefing up health coverage for district employees.
  • Allocating more funds for non-certified staff members.

Tuesday evening, committee members heard from a handful of East Idaho teachers and administrators.

Moving away from an attendance-based model

The current funding formula shows its age in many ways, and rewriting it has been on the state’s radar ever since it showed up in 2013 as a recommendation from Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.

On Tuesday, Headlee and State Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Public School Finance Tim Hill walked committee members through the pros and cons of handing out funding based on enrollment. A switch could drive up budgets by $57 million to $71 million, Hill said.

The current attendance-based model places a financial burden on districts. Average daily attendance is roughly 95 percent of actual enrollment, Hill said. However, districts still prepare for and incur costs as if 100 percent of students were attending.

An enrollment model would be more stable, but more costly.

What’s more, Hill added, an enrollment model might not be fair to schools with high attendance rates.

“If you have two schools with 100 students apiece, and the school with a lower rate of attendance gets as much money as the one with a higher rate of attendance, some might say that’s unfair,” Hill said.

On the other hand, an enrollment-based model require less staff time for  collecting, reporting and compiling data. The model would also align with mastery-based education — another recommendation from Otter’s education task force and the crux of the effort to revamp the funding model.

Under mastery-based learning, students move through the school system based on their command of subject matter, not seat time in a particular class.

More state funds for health coverage

East Idaho superintendents consistently rank rising health care premiums as a leading contributor to financial woes and teacher turnover. Blue Cross of Idaho, the state’s largest insurer of teachers and their family members, increased its rates 16.6 percent in 2015, according to a recent report by the Idaho Statesman’s Audrey Dutton.

Districts are often forced to supplement employee health care costs, but the rise has grown too steep. In many districts, employees covered by district-sponsored health care usually end up paying out-of-pocket premiums for family members.

Headlee presented a breakdown of how eight other states handle district health insurance.

In Washington, lawmakers allocate a set amount to districts directly within its funding formula, which is pegged at roughly the same cost budgeted for its state employees.

A similar model in Idaho could cost up to $17 million, Headlee said.

More funding for non-certified staff and what’s next

Districts must now pay an average of 61 cents for every dollar the state provides for non-certified staff, Headlee said.

Closing this gap would come at another hefty cost: $43.4 million.

With costs mounting, Headlee acknowledged that rewriting the formula will take time.

“These are things that will likely be phased in over several years,” he said.

A committee member also acknowledged the looming task at hand.  “We can see that we’ve got our work cut out for us,” said the committee co-chairman Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

The committee will also gather input and feedback at another field meeting in Post Falls, scheduled for 11 a.m. on Oct. 17 at the North Idaho College Workforce Training Center, Room 108. The agenda hasn’t been set yet, but a public comment session is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m.