Up for grabs: $26 million for K-12 education

Budget writers may have flexibility with $26 million for public schools during the 2014 legislative session that opens Monday.

Tom Luna, Meridian, 10.1.13
Tom Luna

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna said state education officials are not ready to implement the full first stage of the career ladder teacher pay plan stakeholders called for in August.

That move could leave more money to begin reversing millions of dollars in recession-era cuts to school districts’ operations budgets.

Luna’s 2014-15 budget request called for spending $42 million to implement the first phase of the career ladder plan next year as part of a five-year rollout. (Click the highlighted text to read the full FY15 Budget request from Luna).

The Governor’s Task Force for Improving Education called for the career ladder. But the mechanics of the plan are tied to a licensure system that has yet to be developed.

“We’re not ready to do that,” Luna said.

Luna said he wants to hold off on spending $26 million for the first step of salary increases on the career ladder. But he still wants to implement portions of the plan – along with the 19 other task force recommendations – next year.

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Luna wants to earmark $16 million in career ladder money to pay for $1,000 leadership bonuses for educators, then come back to the full career ladder once a comprehensive plan can be vetted and implemented.

“Everyone is still committed to doing all the recommendations even though I think we understand, for example, the career ladder is not ready for full implementation at this time,” Luna said.

As for the remaining $26 million, Luna said that should go to addressing the greatest need for schools. One option is speeding up plans to reverse $82.5 million in cuts to school district’s operation budgets. Luna’s proposed budget already calls for putting $16.5 million into operational funding, to begin a five-year restoration process.

School officials from Meridian to eastern Idaho said restoring those budgets needs to be a first priority.

“If we want to restore operation funding at a faster pace – say a three-year pace – I support that; I see need for that,” Luna said.

JeffThompson752
Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls

Some lawmakers also support doing more to reverse the cuts more quickly.

“If we have the money there, we need to get back to the levels of four or five years ago as soon as possible,” Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, told Idaho Education News last month.

On Oct. 1, Luna publicly submitted his 2014-15 budget, which requests nearly $1.4 billion in state general funding, and a $69.9 million increase from 2013-14.

On Monday, Gov. Butch Otter will issue his own 2014-15 budget recommendations when he delivers the State of the State address.

Lawmakers will consider both requests against revenue forecasts and spend much of the upcoming session setting state budgets.

The K-12 budget represents the largest annual state expense, accounting for about 47 percent of general fund spending.

Highlights of Luna’s budget proposal include:

  • Directing $16.5 million for operational funding.
  • Providing $12.2 million in ongoing funding for professional development, including $8 million to allow districts to buy back professional development days.
  • Adding $5 million to a dual credit program for high school students; the state would pay up to 75 percent of the cost of dual credit courses.

Heading into the session, Luna said he is optimistic about cooperation between political parties and education groups – organizations that have sometimes been bitter rivals in recent years.

In August, the 31 task force members endorsed a list of 20 reform recommendations with nearly unanimous agreement.

Weeks before the session began, Democrats unveiled four bills designed to implement the task force recommendations. Those ideas have already garnered bipartisan support.

“(Cooperation between groups) is as good, if not maybe a bit better, than what we’ve seen at times in the past,” Luna said. “We are fortunate to have the kind of bipartisan support and broad stakeholder support we have now.”

Luna said his staff is working with the Democrats to help ensure the bills’ passage. When the bills were announced, there was no cost estimate calculated. Supporters may craft a funding formula based on available state revenues rather than making a take-it-or-leave-it request for specific dollar amounts.

“They do not want a fiscal note to be the reason for the bills not going though the Legislature,” Luna said. “What we want to do, at a minimum, is create a framework and let (the joint budget committee) and the overall Legislature determine how much is available for that.”

Luna knows there will be some differences between his budget and Otter’s. While Luna requested a 5.4 percent spending increase, Otter has signaled his budget will be built around a 3 to 3.5 percent increase.

Regardless, Luna said he has worked closely with Otter’s staff on the budget, and sees no reason why all sides can’t reach an agreement to implement the task force recommendations.

“What I’m pleased about is for the third year in a row the conversation is about how much more money we have to spend on education, not how we can get by with less,” Luna said.