School budget debate hinges on health care funding

When legislative budget-writers meet Monday morning to set the state’s largest budget, they will have to wrestle with whether to help school districts pay health insurance costs.

Both Gov. Butch Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra have called for increasing K-12 spending by more than $100 million for 2018-19.

On many of their biggest proposals, including a plan to raise teacher pay by more than $40 million, Ybarra and Otter pretty much agree.

But the agreement ends over health care costs.

Ybarra asked legislators for $7.2 million to help districts with health care costs, on top of a separate request to increase discretionary/operations funding for districts.

Otter recommends no such funding increase, but would instead prefer the state invest more heavily in a K-3 literacy initiative and add funding for teacher professional development.

Rep. Wendy Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican who helps write the K-12 budgets, said school leaders have sent her a clear message about their needs.

“While there wasn’t unanimity between the governor and superintendent’s request, it was unanimous out in the field — this is critical,” Horman said. “In consulting with local superintendents from my region, their top priorities were clearly around (teacher pay raises through) the career ladder and help covering health insurance costs.”

Asked about the differing proposals Thursday, Otter told reporters the state has actually done a better job in recent years of funding school districts. Instead of dumping money into discretionary/operations funding, the state has added budgetary line items that specifically direct where the money must go.

And given competing funding priorities, Otter suggested that his most pressing obligation is to fund initiatives that improve student learning and reach the classroom in order to meet Idaho’s constitutional mandate “to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

Speaking for her personal priorities, Horman said she will push for another $100 million in new funding for public schools, look to secure teacher raises, help districts with health care costs and make a deposit into the Public Education Stabilization Fund, a savings account that has a balance of about $65 million, as of Friday.

K-12 spending is expected to account for about 48 percent of general fund spending next year, which is why the budget is so closely scrutinized. Higher education budgets will be set separately, but in all, education spending is expected to represent about 63 percent of all state general fund spending.

JFAC is scheduled to convene at 8:30 a.m. Monday, even though Monday is Presidents Day.

Follow @IdahoEdNews on Twitter for live updates from Monday’s budget-setting hearing. Check back with Idaho Education News on Monday afternoon for full coverage of the new public school budget proposal.

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