Statehouse roundup, 2.4.2022: Feds could feed another $74 million into school lunch program

Legislative budget-writers signed off on several education spending bills Friday.

The votes came as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee plowed through more than a dozen “supplemental” budgets for the current fiscal year, which runs through June 30.

The big-ticket education items:

School nutrition. JFAC approved feeding $74 million of federal money into the state’s school lunch program. The money would allow schools to operate under a federal waiver, and provide universal free meals to students.

The free lunch waiver, a response to the coronavirus pandemic, is driving up the cost of Idaho’s federally funded lunch program. Costs from July through October totaled $32 million, an 83% increase.

The $74 million is designed to cover increased costs through June, and address supply chain issues.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, spoke against the plan, saying the program was “not a proper role of government.” The budget passed 16-2, with dissenting votes from Nate and Riggins Republican Cindy Carlson, who is substituting for Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird.

Teacher salaries. JFAC approved another $25.6 million for teacher salaries and benefits, covering a projected shortfall in the career ladder program. This budget passed 18-0.

Idaho Digital Learning Academy. The committee unanimously approved a midyear budget boost for IDLA, a statewide online course platform. This budget comes to nearly to $2 million.

Arts grants. The State Board of Education could get a one-time $1 million line item for arts grants for elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. The Idaho Commission on the Arts would help review grant applications. This budget passed 17-1, with Nate in opposition.

All supplemental budget bills must pass the House and Senate before going to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.

Scholarship eligibility expansion, charter building fund, teacher pay change move forward

The House Education Committee had perhaps its busiest day of the session so far Friday, quickly introducing two bills and passing three more on to the House floor.

The committee churned through proposals to help fund charter schools’ building construction, to expand scholarship eligibility and to make technical changes to how some teachers are paid.

Three bills passed unanimously, and head to the full House.

House Bill 505 would axe a state scholarship requirement, which forces students eligible for the Postsecondary Credit Scholarship to earn a matching, merit-based scholarship from a business or industry.

  • Under the bill, students could get the scholarship if they earn any matching scholarship from a business. It wouldn’t have to be merit-based or contingent on a student’s GPA.
  • Students would still have to earn a set number of dual credits and hit other benchmarks to be eligible. (More on the bill here.)

House Bill 461 emerged as an effort to extend eligibility for a different scholarship to the children of three military pilots who died in a Black Hawk crash during a training exercise last year.

  • The full-ride Armed Forces Scholarship is available to children and spouses of military and public safety officers who were killed or permanently and totally disabled in the line of duty.
  • But dependents of military members are only eligible if the military member died or was disabled while in combat. HB 506 would change that to include troops who were harmed in training exercises. (More on the scholarship here and the bill here.)

Finally, House Bill 506 would make a technical change to how permanent and total disability are defined under the military scholarship. (More here.)

Two other proposals were formally introduced with little to no opposition.

One bill would allow charter schools to borrow up to $2.5 million from a new state fund to cover the costs of new building construction.

Unlike traditional schools, charters can’t ask local voters to bankroll their bond issues. That forces them to seek out expensive, high-interest loans from private parties, sponsor Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, told the committee.

The bill would create a “revolving loan fund,” so young charters could pay for new construction using low-interest loans from the state. Then, they’d pay the money back into the fund to help sustain it.

“The fund is constantly recycling itself,” said Emily McClure, lobbying for the bill on behalf of the Idaho Charter School Network.

A vote on the bill was the only one of five to yield opposition Friday. Only Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, opposed it in a voice vote, after raising questions about how much money would eventually go into the fund.

To cover bill writers’ estimates, the fund would need $10 million annually to cover the average four charter school openings that occur each year. McClure said she’d prefer to see the fund reach $50 million at its peak.

A separate appropriations bill would have to clear the Legislature to fill the new charter building fund with tax dollars.

Another new bill is meant to ensure that teachers returning to the profession, coming from out of state, or switching from administrative posts to teaching would be paid at a level that matches their experience.

The bill would tweak how staff are placed on the career ladder, Idaho’s salary schedule for school staff.

It would cost just over $2 million annually to cover added salaries and benefits.

“This is a critical piece of continuing to bring in more outstanding teachers from out of state,” said Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth.

The Idaho School Boards Association backed the proposal in November, EdNews reported.

Both bills can now receive full hearings in the committee.

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