Will school districts keep budget flexibility?

As school districts dig their way out of the Great Recession, the Legislature has allowed schools to leave hundreds of teaching jobs to go dark.

And the 2014 Legislature will have to decide whether to extend this so-called “use-it-or-lose-it” funding flexibility.

Lawmakers kept the language on the books in 2013, allowing districts to fill 9.5 percent fewer teaching positions than the state funds. The 2013 bill passed easily — 65-5 in the House, 32-1 in the Senate — but this was only a one-year extension. In a meeting with Treasure Valley school superintendents Wednesday, Rob Winslow of the Idaho Association of School Administrators suggested that the concept may face opposition during the 2014 session.

Before the debate renews, let’s take a look at the on-the-ground effects.

A one-year snapshot

Tim Hill, the State Department of Education’s deputy superintendent for public school finance, compiled the numbers for 2012-13. The highlights:

  • The state general fund bankrolled 14,667 full-time teaching positions — known in budget parlance as full-time equivalents, or FTEs.
  • School districts filled 14,559 FTEs. That comes to about a 0.7 percent difference.
  • Most districts used funding flexibility, to some extent: 88 hired fewer teaching FTEs than the state funded. But 27 school districts hired more teachers than the state funded.

As one might expect from a law designed to allow local control, results varied widely from district to district.

Four case studies

Let’s take a look at four districts with four different stories.

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Meridian. Not surprisingly, the state’s largest school district left more teaching jobs unfilled than any other district in Idaho. Meridian received funding for 1,897 FTEs and filled 1,775. This is a difference of 122 FTEs, but about a 6.5 percent gap, still well below 9.5 percent.

Discovery Elementary School II
Students in Meridian’s Discovery Elementary School.

Staffing remains about 120 FTEs below state funding, district spokesman Eric Exline said.

Cuts have occurred across the board, he said. “Of course, this means that class sizes have increased, by about by two students per class on average.”

Boise. Just east of the Meridian district, a very different situation has unfolded.

In 2012-13, the Boise School District received state funding for 1,358 FTEs and hired close to 1,580 FTEs — 16.3 percent above the state’s allowance.

This isn’t a one-year phenomenon. Boise has consistently hired more teachers than the state funds, and local property taxes are a key piece of the equation. As a “charter” district, predating statehood, Boise retains unique property taxing authority. While other school districts are heavily dependent on state funding, Boise still generates 38 percent of its budget locally.

Don Coberly
Boise school Superintendent Don Coberly

“(The charter levy) has been the source of much of the funding used to hire additional staff,” Superintendent Don Coberly said.

But there are other factors. In March 2012, Boise voters approved a five-year, $70 million levy. This has allowed the district to maintain or reduce class sizes, Coberly said. Meanwhile, the district has hired fewer administrators than the state budgets.

Nampa. In 2012-13, as administrators began trying to dig its way out of a financial crunch, Nampa filled about 750 teaching FTEs. The state funded 783.

While the district hopes to erase a $5.1 million shortfall in 2013-14, the use-it-or-lose-it authority is a part of the equation. This year, the district filled 46 fewer positions than the state funded, spokeswoman Allison Westfall said.

Lake Ridge opening day
The first day of school in Nampa’s Lake Ridge Elementary School.

This flexibility doesn’t head off all of Nampa’s tough decisions; in May, the School Board rejected a proposal to slash nearly 18 elementary school counseling, music and physical education positions, causing Interim Superintendent Thomas Michaelson to resign abruptly. Instead, the district has increased class sizes and eliminated positions through attrition.

But when that happens, programs sometimes fall by the wayside. For example, the high schools no longer offer Advanced Placement psychology, as a result of a teacher retirement.

Blaine County. For most Idaho districts, a 2006 law shifted most day-to-day school funding away from the unpopular but predictable local property tax, and towards more volatile state sales tax collections.

But there are a handful of exceptions, such as Boise. And Blaine County is another such exception.

Blaine County and three other wealthy school districts were granted authority to collect a budget stabilization levy, offsetting the reliance on sales taxes. The amount of the levy was capped at $29.5 million per year, spokeswoman Heather Crocker said, but it accounts for 62 percent of the district’s annual budget.

As a result, the district’s staffing is well above what the state bankrolls. The district had nearly 274 teaching FTEs in 2012-13, 62 percent above the 169 FTEs funded by the state.

The district uses the local funding to hold down class size, Crocker said, and offer a variety of other programs: from preschool and all-day kindergarten to college counseling, AP and dual-credit classes.

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