School funding committee kicks off regional meetings

The Legislature’s school funding formula interim committee is changing up its procedures as it kicks off a series of regional meetings with a day of closed-door meetings this week.

The committee, now in its third year of work, is charged with developing recommendations to rewrite the state’s complicated school funding formula.

As part of an information gathering campaign, the committee will stage public forums — as well as a new series of private, invitation-only focus groups — during six regional meetings around Idaho this month.

The first set of meetings kicks off this week in Boise with a private, focus group discussion among school personnel and paid consultants on Wednesday, followed by a two-hour public meeting Thursday evening.

Taxpayers, the news media, legislators serving on the school funding formula committee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and her State Department of Education staff will be barred from attending the private focus group discussions, state officials said.

Using the same combination of private and public events, other regional meetings are planned for Fort Hall, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene.

Idaho Falls Rep. Wendy Horman, the funding formula committee’s co-chair, said the invitation-only focus groups were created by and will be staffed with consultants from Education Commission of the States. The private focus groups are being offered so school officials could speak candidly about their experiences with school finance in a free-flowing manner without worrying about who is listening or whether the news media would misrepresent their perspectives, Horman said.

“We want to make sure education professionals have the opportunity to freely discuss their concerns with current problems with the formula and their ideas for solutions,” Horman said.

Taxpayers will pay for the meetings they’re barred from. Taxpayers will also cover expenses from the funding formula committee and the private focus group discussions dedicated to deciding how best to spend taxpayer dollars. The K-12 public school budget — at the center of this funding formula debate — is the state’s largest general fund expense each year, representing about $1.7 billion in annual state spending.

State officials invited a teacher, business manager or superintendent from every school district and charter school to participate in the private, focus group meetings, Horman said.

“These business managers who work with the formula on an everyday basis, they know where the current glitches are and they have ideas where to fix them,” Horman said.

No policy decisions will be made during the private meetings, Horman said. Following the regional meetings, ECS consultants will make recommendations to the funding formula committee, which the members of the committee will then vote on during a public meeting.

ECS will not record the private focus group meetings, and will report on the suggestions offered during the meetings in an anonymous fashion, state officials said. That means legislators on the funding formula committee won’t know whether a given suggestion was offered by the business manager of the state’s largest school district or a teacher from Idaho’s smallest charter school.

Horman said ECS is an experienced organization that made its decisions based on years of work carried out in other states. She said she is not concerned the new procedures hamper government transparency surrounding the state’s largest budget.

“In my opinion the answer to that is a clear no,” Horman said. “There will be public forums, where any member of the public from employed professionals to students and parents can participate and add their input.”

Throughout the first two years of the funding formula committee’s existence, the group has traveled the state soliciting feedback from educators, business leaders, policymakers and the public. Last year, the committee recommended scrapping Idaho’s complicated average daily attendance-based funding formula model in favor of a student-centered, enrollment model.

Horman has told the Legislature she plans for the committee to make more formal, detailed funding formula recommendations to the 2019 Legislature.

Funding formula committee schedule, at a glance

Wednesday: Private, invitation-only focus group meeting for public school and charter representatives, Red Lion “downtowner” hotel, 1800 W. Fairview Ave., Boise.

Thursday: Public forum, 5 to 7 p.m., Red Lion “downtowner” hotel, 1800 W. Fairview Ave., Boise.

Monday: Private, invitation-only meetings by day; public forum, 5 to 7 p.m., Shoshone Bannock Hotel Events Center, 777 Bannock Trail, Fort Hall.

June 12: Private, invitation-only meetings by day in Fort Hall; public forum, 5 to 7 p.m., Taylorview Middle School, 350 Castlerock Lane, Idaho Falls.

June 13: Private, invitation-only meetings by day; public forum, 5 to 7 p.m. Red Lion Hotel, 1357 Blue Lakes Blvd., Twin Falls.

June 19: Private, invitation-only meetings by day; public forum, 5 to 7 p.m., Coeur d’Alene Resort, 115 S. Second St., Coeur d’Alene.

June: 20: Private, invitation-only meetings by day; public forum, 5 to 7 p.m., Red Lion Hotel, 621 21st St., Lewiston.

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