Statehouse roundup, 3.24.15: STEM initiative, and more

The House Education Committee Tuesday passed a bill designed to increase the focus on the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.

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Sen. Bob Nonini, R- Coeur d’Alene

House Bill 302 would create a STEM Action Center housed in Gov. Butch Otter’s office. Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Sen. Bob Nonini pushed for the bill after organizing the Legislature’s STEM Caucus earlier this year.

The idea for a STEM Action Center came out of the caucus, with the idea that the center would coordinate and oversee the implementation of STEM programs and promote science, technology, engineering and math across the state.

The center would be staffed with an administrator and governed by a nine-member board.

“There is lots of good activity around Idaho with STEM, but no real hub to connect those spokes to,” Nonini said. “The STEM Action Center then creates the hub spokes will be connected to and will get that visibility.”

Representatives from Idaho National Laboratory, Micron, Hewlett-Packard, Idaho Business for Education and LCF Enterprises backed the bill.

In legislative lingo, a caucus is a group of lawmakers who embrace the same cause or issue. Thirty-six of the Legislature’s 105 lawmakers attended the first STEM Caucus meeting in February, alongside state officials and business leaders.

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In addition to discussions that came out of the STEM Caucus meeting, Nonini said his idea to focus on STEM was based on a similar program in Utah and an October 2014 USA Today article on job prospects for young people.

The bill next heads to the House floor.

In other Statehouse action Tuesday:

Declining enrollment. House Education killed a bill to alter a safety net for districts that experience decreases in enrollment from year to year.

Under the so-called 97 percent enrollment protection program, Idaho districts that lose more than 3 percent of their students from one year to the next would still receive funding as if they only lost 3 percent of students.

Rep. Thomas Dayley, R-Boise, was pushing a plan to allow districts to opt out of the program. Districts that gain students must pay into the program in order to help districts that lose students. Dayley argued that this was unfair for large, growing districts, such as the West Ada School District.

But lawmakers said tinkering with the program could threaten the program’s stability, leaving the  districts that don’t opt out to shoulder an unfair financial burden.

“I’m concerned this whole thing will completely fall apart in the middle year and then what are we going to do?” said Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth.

Killing the bill means it is dead for the year and the existing program will remain intact.

School counselors. Committee members also killed a bill designed to refine and sharpen the role of school counselors.

Representatives from Gov. Butch Otter’s office and the State Board of Education had said the bill  was necessary to help the state achieve its goal of having 60 percent of young adults hold a college degree or certificate.

Supporters said many counselors have shifted their focus from college and career counseling, with many counselors working instead on scheduling and data entry.

But opponents said they had problems writing job descriptions for counselors into state law. Additionally, they said, districts of different sizes and different locations have different needs, requiring many employees, including counselors, to wear many different hats.

Members of the Idaho Rural Schools Association, Idaho Association of School Administrators and Idaho School Boards Association opposed the bill.

Killing the legislation means that it is dead for the year, which will give supporters time to redraft it and bring it back next year.

Campaign finance disclosure. The House voted 50-19 to pass a bill requiring school board candidates to file the same public disclosure reports that are required of other candidates.

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Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise

The bill has one exemption: Candidates running in school districts with enrollments of fewer than 500 students are not required to file the forms.

“The main purpose of this bill is to increase transparency in local elections and improve accountability,” said sponsoring Rep. Patrick McDonald.

The bill has already cleared the Senate, and heads to Otter next for final consideration.

School tax credits. A bill to extend a series of income tax credits for charitable contributions is headed to Otter.

House Bill 220 would preserve the tax credits for contributions to school foundations, museums and libraries, passed in 2010. Individuals can now take a 50 percent credit up to $500, or $1,000 on a joint return. For companies, the 10 percent tax credit maxes out at $5,000.

The Senate passed the bill 34-0.

Budgets and broadband. The Senate gave unanimous approval to two spending bills designed to unravel the Idaho Education Network funding mess.

The first, House Bill 263, would free up money to cover technology purchases for a handful of districts. These districts purchased equipment — such as voicemail or wide area networks — in hopes of cashing in on the 75 percent match from federally administered “e-Rate” dollars. But when the voided Idaho Education Network project lost its e-Rate match, so did the districts. This House-passed bailout will cover the e-Rate dollars the districts lost.

The Senate also endorsed state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s department budget — a $39.2 million spending plan. Senate Bill 1171 includes $6.3 million to reimburse school districts for their 2015-16 high school broadband contracts.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

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