Statehouse roundup, 3.4.19: Legislators debate confidential funding formula draft bill

House Education Committee members spent nearly 90 minutes Monday debating a secret version of a draft bill to overhaul Idaho’s public school funding formula.

Committee members participating in an open, public meeting wrestled over individual word choice and referred to specific page numbers and lines from the draft, despite the fact the draft is not available to the general public or media.

Rep. Lance Clow

Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, referred to the legislation as the 2:33 p.m. March 1 draft, suggesting the bill is in a constant state of flux from day to day and hour to hour.

At issue is a proposal to rewrite Idaho’s 25-year-old public school funding formula. A legislative interim committee spent three years developing the framework of a proposal to abandon Idaho’s attendance-based formula and replace it with an enrollment-based model where funding follows the student.

Because public school funding is the state’s largest expense, the proposal to change the formula has become one of the year’s top education issues. Because of the amount of money involved, taxpayers, the news media and educators are closely scrutinizing the proposal.

It’s unclear where the proposal goes from here. Through 57 days under the Statehouse rotunda, lawmakers have yet to introduce a bill to rewrite the formula. Monday was the Legislature’s self-imposed deadline to transmit bills between the two legislative chambers. That means for a proposal to go anywhere, legislators would need to bend or break the rules to give it a chance.

Because legislators only shared the 2:33 p.m. March 1 draft with select education groups in the audience Monday, it was impossible to follow the committee’s debate or report on the key aspects of the new draft.

At one point, legislators keyed up a lively discussion about details found on page 14 of the bill. There is no way for the public to know what lawmakers were debating or concerned about, although they mentioned the career ladder salary law at several points.

This isn’t the first time transparency concerns have clouded the funding formula proposal. Last June, the legislative interim committee allowed taxpayer-funded consultants to meet behind closed doors and brainstorm ideas with select education officials — without allowing legislators or Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s staff in the room. During the same month, consultants and lawmakers also conducted a series of public meetings throughout the state.

Then, the interim committee and its paid Education Commission of the States consultants declined for weeks to release a spreadsheet designed to illustrate how their proposal would impact school funding and affect individual school districts.

On Friday, the interim committee posted a new funding spreadsheet on its website. But nobody explained whether the spreadsheet corresponds exactly to the 2:33 p.m. March 1 secret draft discussed Monday, a previously undisclosed Feb. 6 draft bill, the draft bill publicly posted online Jan. 31 or some other draft.

Although it is impossible to report on the substance of the latest draft, Monday’s discussion made it clear the proposal does not enjoy universal support.

Rep. Bill Goesling, R-Moscow, expressed frustration that the state is not seeing a return on investment for funding increases approved in recent years. He made a strong push to insert accountability provisions, while questioning why some basic definitions were not included in the draft.

“It’s time to take a step back,” Goesling said.

Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, pushed for removing proposed additional funding weights to pay for gifted and talented students, but ran into opposition from Goesling and Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City.

And Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, continued to express concerns that several rank-and-file House Education members have not been included in the behind-the-scenes negotiations over the bill.

“I’m a little confused as to how we proceed,” Marshall said. “I’ve done my due diligence on this thing for two months now, and there are a lot of concerns I have now.”

Last week, Marshall evoked the image of a sports stadium and he said he didn’t even feel like he was in the upper deck of stadium as negotiations played out.

Clow suggested bill drafters would gather feedback from Monday’s discussion and incorporate it into a new draft that could soon be put forward for an official introductory hearing. After that, he suggested any bill could still be rewritten two of three more times before he calls a full hearing on an actual bill.

Clow outlined that timeline during the opening of Monday’s meeting. But he had to adjourn Monday’s meeting in order to attend Idaho Day celebrations on the House floor, even though legislators still had numerous unanswered questions about the funding formula proposal.

“We’re quickly running out of time here and we haven’t made much progress,” Clow said about 10 minutes before adjourning Monday’s meeting.

At adjournment, Clow suggested the discussion would continue Tuesday.

Minimum teacher salary bill heads to Senate floor

Gov. Brad Little’s two-year plan to boost starting teacher salaries is one step closer to reaching the governor’s desk.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously endorsed House Bill 153, which would increase starting salaries to $40,000 by 2020-21.

Greg Wilson, Little’s education adviser, described HB 153 as a step to bring Idaho closer in line with neighboring states — and nearby communities such as Spokane, Wash., and Salt Lake City, which offer base salaries of $46,000 and $45,000, respectively.

“These are the states we are competing with,” Wilson said.

The Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association and Idaho Business for Education took turns praising the bill. They reminded senators that, in 2013, then-Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 task force recommended a $40,000 minimum teacher salary.

Idaho’s current minimum teacher salary is $35,800.

If Little’s bill passes, the minimum salary would go to $38,500 next year, and $40,000 the following year.

The minimum salary bill would cost $11.4 million over two years, with a $3.8 million price tag in the first year.

The House overwhelmingly passed HB 153 last week. If the full Senate signs off, the bill would go to Little’s desk for his signature.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

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