Rapid fire: JFAC approves $1.9 billion in K-12 school budgets

Without any real discussion — and without a single dissenting vote — the Legislature’s budget committee approved a $1.9 billion spending framework for public schools.

The budgets fund the final year of the career ladder, a five-year plan to boost teacher salaries, and bankroll Gov. Brad Little’s request to double down on Idaho’s literacy program.

JFAC co-chairs, Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, left, and Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa.

“You have appropriated just about half of the general fund today,” said Sen. Steve Bair, the co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, after lawmakers spent just under an hour walking through the language of the seven budget bills, and passing them all on matching 20-0 votes.

The seven budget bills represent a $110 million increase, or 6.1 percent. The bills now go to the House and Senate floors for a vote.

“I think there was a lot of behind-the-scenes time,” said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, a retired teacher and JFAC member, after the rapid-fire votes. “We probably have hundreds of hours in there, but it went fairly quickly this morning.”

By the numbers, here are some highlights from the budgets:

Career ladder: Since its 2015 passage, the career ladder has funded a 12.5 percent increase in the state’s average teacher salary. Year five carries a $49.7 million price tag.

Raises for administrators and classified staff: The budgets include 3 percent pay raises, costing $7.3 million.

Master teacher premiums: The committee followed Little’s lead and proposed $7.2 million for this new program, with would provide up to $4,000 a year for high-performing veteran teachers. No one is exactly sure what this program will cost in the first year, since no one knows exactly how many teachers will apply and qualify for the premiums. State superintendent Sherri Ybarra requested close to $12 million.

Literacy: JFAC approved putting $26.1 million into extra help for at-risk readers, a $13.1 million increase. The budget-writers did a little finagling to find the new $13.1 million. About $3.1 million is one-time money from the Opportunity Scholarship Program Account.

This account does not fund college scholarships per se. Former Gov. Butch Otter had created the account in hopes of creating a $100 million scholarship endowment. That isn’t likely to happen, Bair said, and the account now sits at about $19 million.

Little pushed hard for full literacy funding, Bair said after Monday’s hearing. “His exact words: This was my top priority of all.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise

Said Ward-Engelking: “That’s a No. 1 priority for (Little) and certainly for many of us who are educators.”

Discretionary funding for schools: JFAC voted to put $14.6 million into operational, or discretionary, school funding. This includes $7.5 million to cover the rising cost of health, vision and dental insurance.

All told, schools stand to receive $28,416 in discretionary funding per classroom, up from $27,481.

Little did not propose an increase here. Ybarra did — and budget-writers considered this a priority. “The committee felt very strongly about putting that back in,” said Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, JFAC’s House co-chair.

Advanced opportunities: JFAC wants to put $18 million into this growing program, which gives students a $4,125 allowance to earn college credits before graduating high school. This is a $3 million increase, requested by both Little and Ybarra.

School safety: It was no surprise, but JFAC made it official Monday. Budget-writers zeroed out the last piece of Ybarra’s $19 million Keep Idaho Students Safe initiative. “The work will continue and although I am disappointed on the safety initiative, again, safety is still a top priority and we will continue that hard work,” Ybarra said after the vote.

Even after JFAC’s quick work Monday, it might have to revisit the K-12 budgets later. If Little’s bill to raise minimum teacher salaries makes its way through the legislative process, the committee might need to come back and fund the $3.8 million plan. The same goes for Ybarra’s $1.4 million plan to expand Idaho’s mastery-based schools pilot.

“It’s not over yet,” Ybarra said.

JFAC also wants to follow up on several programs.

The budget bills call for independent studies of the advanced opportunities and remedial coursework programs — and ongoing reports on the college and career advising and literacy programs.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.

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