Statehouse roundup, 2.20.20: Higher ed budget takes shape, as state leaders seek a long-range plan

Lawmakers added a little bit of money into next year’s higher education budget, exceeding Gov. Brad Little’s request.

The increases are small, but the backdrop is significant. Little, the state’s newly hired college and university presidents and the State Board of Education are trying to hammer out a new funding formula for higher education, and budget-writers wanted to buy the new presidents some time.

“This is a one-year solution to a long-term problem,” said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, during Thursday morning’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hearing.

The spending increases come down to two line items with wonky titles: enrollment workload adjustment and occupancy costs.

The former, better known as EWA, is designed to cover the costs that come with enrollment increases. The money is distributed based on three-year enrollment averages. Rapidly growing Boise State University stands to receive $2.8 million, but based on the three-year averages, Lewis-Clark State College would lose $531,000, Idaho State University would lose $385,000 and the University of Idaho would lose $72,000. JFAC’s budget reverses those possible cuts, keeping LCSC, ISU and the U of I whole.

Occupancy costs cover building maintenance. JFAC doubled this line item to $1.4 million, in an effort to address a backlog of maintenance needs.

Thursday’s JFAC debate was less about the line items themselves — and more about the pace of change in the state’s higher education system.

The new presidents are already retooling the system, said Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee. At the cash-strapped U of I, for instance, 100 employees are looking at taking early retirement.

“I think (the presidents are) going to be good partners for us in the future,” Troy said.

Other budget-writers said change is coming too slowly.

Arguing for a budget that mirrored Little’s request — with no increases for EWA and occupancy costs — JFAC House Vice Chair Wendy Horman cited a $250,000 consultant’s report that recommended ways of streamlining the higher ed system. Two years later, Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said she could see no evidence that the report has changed higher education spending.

Sen. Scott Grow sided with Horman — and Little. The governor is trying to get state agencies to tighten their belts, with 1 percent budget cuts this year and 2 percent cuts next year, and lawmakers shouldn’t slip money back into the budgets. “I think we need to be careful as a Legislature to not undo what he’s trying to do,” said Grow, R-Eagle.

Ultimately, JFAC approved a higher education budget that added money for EWA and occupancy costs. The vote was 12-6, and the motion passed over opposition from committee leadership: Senate co-chair Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot; Senate Vice Chair Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston; and Horman. House Chairman Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, was absent.

The JFAC budget doesn’t really change the bottom line for higher education very much.

The four four-year institutions would receive about $307 million from the state’s general fund budget, a 0.3 percent increase. (The EWA and occupancy costs increases come from dedicated funds, so they don’t affect the general fund budget.)

JFAC also approved two high-profile Little budget requests. The higher ed budget includes $1 million to launch a cybersecurity degree program at Boise State, ISU and the U of I. A separate budget bill, for the State Board, includes $7 million in permanent funding for the Opportunity Scholarship for Idaho college students.

The higher ed and State Board budget bills next go to the House and Senate, before they can reach Little’s desk.

In the meantime, the behind-the-scenes discussions about the higher education funding model will continue; one such meeting took place Wednesday.

Meeting with reporters Wednesday morning, Little conceded that he has spent his first year in office focused on K-12, as opposed to higher ed. But he also said the higher ed system faces a harsh budget reality: enrollment numbers that will not cover the increased overhead costs.

Crabtree attended Wednesday’s meeting on the funding model. During an early morning JFAC work session Thursday, he said he believes the new presidents realize that the current model is unsustainable. “They’re getting the message.”

Charter school legislation stalls in House Ed

Legislation to crack down on financially shaky charter schools stalled in the House Education Committee, when legislators sent it to general orders for amendments.

The bill, proposed by the Idaho Charter School Network, would start the revocation process for charter schools that have less than 15 days of cash on hand for two years in a row.

The network argues that the bill would clarify consequences for charters “on a path to bankruptcy due to poor financial management.” Right now, charter schools can only get shut down because of poor finances or academics when they come up for renewal every five years. This bill, proponents argue, would clarify what would happen if a charter is at risk of bankruptcy and closure between those five-year review periods.

As written, the bill says that if a charter school that has less than 15 days of operating cash on hand at the end of its fiscal  year, for two years in a row, the school’s authorizer would start the process to revoke the school’s charter.  Virtual schools would be exempt.

“We’re growing up as charters and we need to start addressing these issues,” said Blake Youde, president of the Idaho Charter School Network.

Joel Weaver, administrator of Chief Tahgee Elementary charter school in Fort Hall, testified against the bill, arguing that the state does not adequately fund charter schools, which puts them at a disadvantage from the start.

“Make it equal, then come after us,” Weaver said.

The Idaho Charter School Commission, which oversees the vast majority of the state’s charters, did not take a position on the bill. A representative from Bluum, a nonprofit that support charters, testified in favor of the legislation.

“I keep on hearing in this committee, time and time again, about accountability,” said Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, speaking in favor of the bill. “Well, you need to have real accountability.”

After debating accountability, and whether the legislation might unfairly hinder newly established charters, the committee voted across party lines to send the bill to the floor for amendments.

Rep. Gayann DeMourdant, R-Eagle, who founded North Star Public Charter in Eagle and served on the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, led the push for amendments.

The deck is “stacked against” opening charter schools, she said. She wanted the bill to strike a different balance between fiscal responsibility, and allowing new charters a shot at success.

“There is definitely enough merit here to continue the discussion,” DeMourdant said.

Idaho Education News reporter Sami Edge contributed.

Note: Bluum and Idaho Education News both receive grant funding from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.


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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