Statehouse roundup, 2.27.24: University presidents ask lawmakers to fully fund employee pay

Presidents of Idaho’s four-year universities asked lawmakers Tuesday to fully fund employee pay. 

Faculty and staff at Idaho’s universities are state employees, but the state only funds a percentage of their salaries. Universities make up the difference with various “spigots” and “faucets,” such as tuition and fees, grants and donations, said Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton, 

“We swirl it around, and we pay the employees,” Pemberton said.  

As university presidents met with the House Education Committee Tuesday, Rep. Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome, asked each administrator what percentage of their institution’s salaries are covered by the state. 

Here’s what they said: 

  • University of Idaho: 55%.
  • Boise State University: 33%.
  • Idaho State University: 48%.
  • Lewis-Clark: 58%. 

If the state fully funded those salaries, it would keep tuition stable and help the universities attract high-level faculty, the presidents said. Additional salary funds would address a pressing need for faculty from in-demand industries at U of I, said President C. Scott Green. 

“We need nuclear engineers, we need cybersecurity expertise, we need health care, we need teachers,” he said. 

The presidents this week also are justifying their spending requests before the Legislature’s budget committee. Idaho State President Robert Wagner and Boise State President Marlene Tromp met with the committee Monday. Green and Pemberton are on Wednesday’s agenda. 

House Education didn’t ask Green about U of I’s push to purchase the University of Phoenix; nor did the Senate Education Committee, after a series of presidents’ presentations Tuesday afternoon. But he’ll likely face questions from JFAC Wednesday morning; in the past, budget-writers have posed some pointed questions about the proposed $685 million acquisition.

Governor signs charter school overhaul into law

A sweeping revision of regulations governing charter school applications, operations and reauthorizations is now law. 

Gov. Brad Little signed the “Accelerating Public Charter Schools Act” in a Tuesday ceremony at North Star Charter School, after the bill sailed through the Legislature. Little’s budget chief Alex Adams was the primary author of the bill. 

Charter school advocates praised its passage Tuesday. The new statutes seek to “reward successful public charter schools with enhanced autonomy and longer contract terms, reducing regulatory burdens,” said Blake Youde and Terry Ryan, executive director and board chair, respectively, of the Idaho Charter School Network. 

“Now, public charter schools in Idaho will have more flexibility to innovate while still being held accountable for results,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 

For more details on the bill, click here.

North Star Charter Public Charter School students mingle with Idaho Gov. Brad Little as he signs a bill overhauling charter regulations. (Photo: Darren Svan/Idaho Education News)

State Board budget heads to governor

The Senate on Tuesday approved a $1.1 billion “maintenance” budget for the State Board of Education. 

The base spending package funds universities, community colleges, state education offices and other programs and agencies. It now heads to the governor’s desk, as lawmakers consider new spending requests from the State Board and Department of Education. 

Democrats continued to oppose the Republican-backed maintenance budgets, part of a new process that splits prior-year appropriations from new spending requests, considered individually. The State Board budget passed along party lines. 

If the Legislature adjourns and only the maintenance budgets are approved, “it would be a huge cut,” said Senate Minority Caucus Chair Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise. 

Senate approves boost to Advanced Opportunities funds

Private school students who claim Advanced Opportunities funds could get a big boost under a bill the Senate endorsed Tuesday. 

The state program allows students in seventh through 12th grade to claim state funds for overload courses, dual credits, advanced placement exams and workforce training. Currently, public school students can claim $4,125 while private school students can get $750. 

Senate Bill 1359 would hike the maximum allowance for private school students to $2,500, a 233% increase. 

“What that does is opens up more opportunities for our non-public school students, but it does not have a fiscal impact,” said co-sponsoring Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian. 

The state already budgeted for the increase. When lawmakers in 2021 allowed private school students to claim Advanced Opportunities, they capped that part of the program at $750,000. According to the new bill’s fiscal note, 300 private school students currently receive program funds, meaning all would have to claim maximum allowances to reach the budget cap. 

The bill also raises the allowance for public school students to $4,625, a 12% increase, and it removes a restriction on per-semester uses for career technical education. The current award maximum for public students isn’t enough to pay for dual credits leading to an associate’s degree, Den Hartog said. 

The Senate unanimously approved the bill, which now heads to the House.

House OKs bill increasing fines for passing a school bus

A divided House passed a bill to ramp up penalties for illegally passing a school bus.

House Bill 610 would make illegal passing an infraction, subject to an automatic $300 fine. A second offense within five years would be subject to a fine of $600 to $1,000 and up to a six-month jail sentence.

Currently, minimum fines are $200 for a first offense, and $400 and $600 for second or third offenses within five years.

The bill is designed to keep the courts from downgrading charges and fines for illegal passing, said Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock, the bill’s sponsor.

Debate was limited. Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, criticized HB 610’s potential jail sentences, saying it would take Idaho a step closer to becoming “an incarcerating state.”

The House passed the bill, 37-29. It now goes to the Senate.

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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