Session ends with a flurry of activity

Rep. Maxine Bell
Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chairman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, chats during a break Thursday, with Phil Homer of the Idaho Association of ThSchool Administrators; Harold Ott, executive director of the Idaho Rural Schools Association; and Lewiston Tribune reporter William Spence.

The whirlwind final day of the 2014 legislative session was a newsy day for K-12.

The Senate gave its blessing to the K-12 budget. Lawmakers grudgingly funneled money into high school broadband. And they put the finishing touches on a school security bill.

Lawmakers adjourned for the year on Thursday; the 74-day session was the shortest in a decade. The 2013 session lasted 88 days.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little
Lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Brad Little enjoy a light moment as the 2014 session draws to a close.

Here are Thursday’s education highlights:

Senate passes K-12 budget. With limited debate, and with bipartisan backing, the Senate signed off on the $1.37 billion public school budget.

The seven pieces of the K-12 budget passed the House Wednesday afternoon — and now go to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk.

Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, hailed the 5.1 percent spending increase, the most robust increase for K-12 since 2007. “(But) we’ve got plenty of work to do.”

The budget marks incremental steps for K-12. The budget restores $35 million in district “operational spending,” but $82.5 million was cut during the recession. The budget includes a 1 percent pay raise for teachers and administrators and $15.8 million in leadership premiums for teachers — a small step toward establishing a teacher career ladder that could cost about a quarter billion dollars.

“I look for substantial changes next year,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. Goedde is a member of a state panel that will write up the teacher licensing framework supporting the career ladder.

While House Democrats debated vigorously against some of the spending bills Wednesday, the Senate proceedings took on a bipartisan tone. A JFAC Democrat, Roy Lacey of Pocatello, carried the teacher pay bill on the Senate floor.

“We’ve made great progress,” said Lacey, “and we can only look forward to doing better things.”

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Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens

The dissent, such as it was, centered on the Idaho Core Standards. Calling Common Core a step toward a “nationalized curriculum,” Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens argued against two budget items that provide teacher training to support the standards.

Still, all seven bills passed by lopsided margins; five passed on 34-0 margins. (Full vote counts on our Bill Tracker.)

Broadband bailout. Within the span of three hours, both houses passed a $4.8 million plan to keep the Idaho Education Network online.

The high school broadband network has been at the center of a funding and contract dispute that caught lawmakers by surprise this year.

Rep. Maxine Bell, the Jerome Republican who serves as co-chairwoman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, pushed for the spending plan – but vented her frustrations by saying the situation “equates to I.O.U.”

“What we know is the kids didn’t have anything to do with it and the schools didn’t have anything to do with it,” Bell said.

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Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, also backed the bill, but said the Legislature needs to have more control over the issue. Lawmakers still harbor concerns about the process and competency of the state’s Department of Administration, which handles the broadband contract.

“We, as a Legislature, need to be stronger,” Rusche said. “We need to be more vigilant and we need to have hearings and hold people accountable when things are done wrong.”

House Bill 650 passed the House 67-1. The only opposition came from Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Janet Trujillo. On the Senate side, HB 650 passed 35-0, without any debate.

The $4.8 million will replace federally administered fees from cell phone and landline bills, which normally cover 75 percent of network costs. The fees have been on hold for a year, as a federal contractor reviews the disputed Idaho Education Network contract.

HB 650 will keep the network up and running through Feb. 28, which will allow the Legislature to revisit the issue in 2015.

School safety. School districts will be able to tap into cigarette tax revenues to beef up school safety plans.

House Bill 589, now headed to the governor’s desk, would provide schools with funding to draft school safety plans. The money could also be used to hire school resource officers or install lock systems or intercoms, said House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle.

had a circuitous path to passage Thursday. The Senate amended the bill Thursday morning, to carve out $80,000 for the Commission on Hispanic Affairs; this funding was jeopardized by the original version of the bill. The Senate and House overwhelmingly passed the amended bill Thursday.

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