Statehouse roundup, 3.13.17: House adds pupil services staffers to bonus program

A proposal to make pupil services staff members eligible for salary bonuses cleared its final legislative hurdle Monday morning.

The House voted 59-11 to pass Senate Bill 1059, which would allow pupil services staff to be eligible for bonuses available to teachers and other educators. Pupil services staff includes psychologists, audiologists, speech clinicians, social workers and other professionals.

Sponsoring Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said the bill is designed to correct an oversight from 2016, when pupil services staff members were moved on to the state’s career ladder salary law. Lawmakers added pupil services professionals to the career ladder, but neglected to make them eligible for bonuses.

Staff members with at least eight years of experience would be eligible for renewable bonuses of $4,000 per year if they meet performance criteria established by local school districts.

Some of the House’s more conservative members voted against the bill, after Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, questioned its estimated cost.

The cost estimate attached to the bill offers two scenarios — one where 10 percent of pupil service staff earn the bonuses, and a second where 25 percent of staffers earn bonuses. Those scenarios resulted in annual cost estimates ranging between $408,000 and slightly more than $1 million.

Clow conceded that state officials don’t know exactly how many staffers will meet eligibility requirements for the bonuses. Therefore, they don’t know exactly how much the program will cost the state.

New Plymouth Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby supported the bill. The retired school superintendent said pupil services staff members play a key role in helping students improve academic performance.

SB 1059 now heads to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk. It passed the Senate 33-1 on Feb. 27.

Rewritten charter bill surfaces

The House Ways and Means Committee introduced a slightly rewritten version of a charter school bill that sparked controversy earlier this month.

Idaho Charter School Network lobbyist Emily McClure and Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, are pushing the new bill. It replaces House Bill 241, which the House Education Committee sent out for possible amendments on March 8.

McClure said the new bill introduced Monday contains the changes the committee sought in the old bill. Specifically, page 14 of the new bill leaves in place a section of Idaho law which would require that a charter school “complies with the general education laws of the state unless specifically directed otherwise.”

The original bill removed that requirement.

McClure said both bills are intended to streamline the process of opening a new charter school without diminishing the scrutiny on new charter applications.

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, thanked McClure and DeMordaunt for working with the Idaho Education Association and Idaho School Boards Association to build consensus. But Erpelding voted against introducing the bill, saying the rewrite bypasses the amending process House Education recommended.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, disagreed with Erpelding and the committee’s Republicans cleared the way to introduce the bill.

Moyle suggested it would be up to House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to decide if the new version of the bill heads straight to the House floor for a vote or returns to House Education for a full hearing.

Superintendents praise career ladder funding

Two years into the teacher salary “career ladder,” school districts can stretch their dollars and ease the burden on local taxpayers, three rural superintendents said Monday.

“It’s been a tremendous opportunity for us,” Homedale district Superintendent Rob Sauer told the Senate Education Committee. “The career ladder is something that helps us to be more competitive.”

Sauer, Melba Superintendent Andy Grover and Kimberly Superintendent Luke Schroeder applauded lawmakers for putting more money into the career ladder, a five-year, $250 million plan to boost teacher pay. In the next couple of weeks, the Legislature will have to vote on year three of the career ladder — and this costliest installment in the program carries a $62 million price tag.

The career ladder has taken pressure off the districts, at least to a point. Two years ago, Kimberly used 86 percent of its state operational or “discretionary” funding for teacher salaries or benefits, Schroeder said. Now, that number has dropped to 73 percent.

The career ladder has helped Melba fund pay raises and continue to operate without a supplemental levy, Grover said. Melba has not collected a supplemental levy since 2012-13.

The three superintendents who spoke Monday have some common funding challenges. For example, all three struggle to retain teachers, facing pressure from urban districts.

But they also are outliers of sorts. While 93 of Idaho’s 115 school districts collect a voter-approved supplemental levy, Homedale, Melba and Kimberly do not. Homedale and Melba also are among the 43 Idaho school districts operating on a four-day schedule.

And while all three superintendents praised the career ladder during their presentations Monday afternoon, all three recognized its limitations. Since the career ladder’s schedule puts much of the state’s new money into beginning teacher salaries, the superintendents say they are using local dollars to increase pay for veteran teachers. This sends a strong message to staff, Sauer said, “but I also think its the right thing to do.”

Districts are not required to use the salary plan spelled out in the career ladder. Some districts simply put the increased state dollars into their own salary schedules.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

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