Round 3: Funding formula committee looks at another summer of work

For the Legislature’s school funding formula committee, the work will resume after the 2018 session ends.

And this time around, the committee is working under a self-imposed deadline. The goal is to have a recommended rewrite ready for the 2019 Legislature.

“We have a journey yet to travel ahead,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, the committee’s co-chair, during a brief meeting Thursday afternoon.

That journey means the committee could spend a third summer looking at a complex — and outdated — formula that hasn’t been rewritten since 1994. This is the formula Idaho used to parcel out nearly $1.7 billion in tax dollars in 2017-18.

The House-Senate funding formula committee has some general ideas in mind. The committee wants to abandon a formula based on student attendance, and shift to a formula based on student enrollment. The change might sound subtle, but lawmakers believe a shift to an enrollment-based model will allow tax dollars to follow students as they navigate through the school system.

But the move won’t be seamless. The committee still needs to work out what to do for school districts and charters that might face a funding cut during the transition. The committee also needs to figure out a “weighting” formula — a plan to provide extra dollars to serve special education students, English language learners or other at-risk groups.

If the Legislature agrees to give the committee a third year on the job, meetings could begin in early April. Legislative leaders hope to adjourn the 2018 session on March 23.

Truth in bonding bill

Rep. Ron Nate says he simply wants to add 72 words to Idaho ballots. He wants local governments and school districts to spell out how much a bond issue would increase property tax rates.

“This is what speaks to the voter,” said Nate, R-Rexburg, as he presented his House Bill 560 to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.

Testimony was mixed.

Larry Lyon said the language would help voters sort through “terribly confusing” data about bond issues; the former Idaho Falls City Council member was a leading opponent of the College of Eastern Idaho bond issue that passed in May.

Ada County deputy clerk Phil McGrane questioned the mechanics. He said added wording could add pages to ballots, increasing printing costs, while adding verbiage that voters might not even take the time to read.

Committee discussion was testy.

At one point, Nate said county officials seemed resistant to doing any additional work. Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, criticized this remark, and Nate apologized.

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said the bill was a needed first step, because he believes school districts deliberately try to hide the cost of bond issues. Voters can’t do the math on their own, and the retired newspaper publisher said journalists don’t report on the bottom line “because they can’t do the math either.”

HB 560 passed the committee and now heads to the House floor.

Advanced opportunities

Before approving a few tweaks in Idaho’s advanced opportunities program, some members of the Senate Education Committee wanted to get a handle on the program’s rising costs.

The Legislature had to dip into savings to cover 2016-17 costs, as junior and senior high school students took $13.3 million in college-level classes and exams on the state’s nickel.

Another withdrawal is inevitable this year. The State Department of Education expects students to take about $15 million worth of courses in 2017-18, said Tina Polishchuk, the department’s advanced opportunities coordinator. The Legislature set aside only $7 million for advanced opportunities for 2017-18.

Senate Education chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, suggested this is a good problem to have. The program has taken off beyond expectations, he said, but students are using their $4,125 line of credit to earn college credits, saving themselves thousands of dollars in tuition costs.

This year’s tweaks shouldn’t drive up advanced opportunities costs, said Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, a longtime advocate for the program. The new language is designed to make it easier for students to take state-funded summer classes, and it will require college and career advisers to counsel any student who has earned 15 dual credits.

Senate Bill 1292, the advanced opportunities update bill, heads to the Senate floor for amendment. Meanwhile, lawmakers will consider a $15 million advanced opportunities program budget for 2018-19.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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