Ybarra asks lawmakers to increase public school funding by 6.8 percent

Schools chief Sherri Ybarra asked budget-writers to keep Idaho’s public school students in mind while weighing her request to increase state spending on K-12 by more than $113 million next year.

Ybarra, the Republican superintendent of public instruction, made her closely watched budget presentation to the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Thursday morning — calling it a stockholder’s report.

As expected, she laid out a plan to increase K-12 spending by 6.8 percent in fiscal year 2019. Overall, Ybarra is seeking nearly $1.8 billion in general fund money for public schools and charters.

By far the biggest investment driving Ybarra’s budget increase is funding for educators’ salaries and benefits. Ybarra called for another $41.7 million in salaries and benefits for a fourth consecutive year of raises under the Legislature’s career ladder salary law.

Ybarra called teacher salaries and benefits the No. 1 priority she heard in field visits over the past year.

“This shows, once again, we are investing in our human capital,” Ybarra told lawmakers.

To help make her case, Ybarra guided JFAC members through 25 pages of spreadsheets, graphs and charts. She balanced these facts and figures with personal stories — sometimes anonymous — from teachers, students and classrooms across the state. At times, Ybarra read testimonials from educators and students, and showed off students’ artwork that inspired her.

“My intention for us as we swim in these numbers is to keep in mind the more than 300,000 children that are served in our classrooms each day,” Ybarra said.

Overall, Ybarra said everything in her budget relates back to her office’s strategic plan, and represents an effort to continue implementation the 20 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.

“As we take stock of the five-year plan to improve K-12 education, we are on the right track,” Ybarra said.

Ybarra, who is up for re-election this year, also seemed to take stock of her own legacy. She said her mission since her 2014 election has been to help guide Idaho’s plan to reinvest in public schools following a recession marked by budget cuts and freezes.

As for her accomplishments, Ybarra pointed to a modest increase in the state’s high school graduation rates and the rise in high school students earning college credits through advanced opportunities programs.

Ybarra didn’t hide from her challenges, saying the state and nation are mired in an educator shortage. Ybarra also expressed continued concern for students who face harassment, saying — again — that she wants to declare a war on bullying.

Highlights from Ybarra’s budget proposal include:

  • $41.7 million more for educators’ raises and benefits under the career ladder salary law
  • $19 million more for discretionary funding for districts (a funding source sometimes called operations funding). Within that $19 million, Ybarra would carve out $7.2 million for health insurance costs.
  • $8.6 million more for classroom technology and WiFi.
  • $8 million more for advanced opportunities programs that let students accelerate their education or earn college credits in high school.
  • $2 million more for college and career counselors.
  • $1.4 million in additional state funding to expand the state’s mastery-based education program.

Wilder schools Superintendent Jeff Dillon, who is opposing Ybarra in the May GOP primary, said the overall presentation was fine, but he had numerous concerns with the details.

“I definitely had reservations about the appropriations and the requests for appropriations,” Dillon said. “It’s not data-driven. We need to make sure we understand the data.”

Dillon said he would have favored citing specific polling data that outlined school district needs, from West Ada to Boise, Idaho Falls and beyond. Dillon questioned whether more money was needed for professional development, or just a different approach. He suggested a greater investment in mastery-based education and said that no available data proves that the career ladder helps retain and recruit teachers.

After her presentation, Ybarra told Idaho Education News her budget was rooted in data and a five-year plan — the 2013 task force recommendations — as well as meetings with education groups, feedback from administrators and conversations with lawmakers and other state officials.

“It was a year-long process,” Ybarra said. “We make sure we follow the blueprint and we talk to the stakeholders.”

Ybarra’s K-12 budget hearing lasted one hour and 14 minutes. After a 48-minute presentation, lawmakers asked Ybarra about technology, English language learners, the state’s literacy initiative and Idaho’s much-debated 60 percent postsecondary education goal.

Several lawmakers praised Ybarra’s presentation, including JFAC co-chair Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. Keough, a Statehouse veteran in her 11th term, called Ybarra’s presentation “a very thorough look at your budget proposal,” and thanked Ybarra for the level of detail.

Moving forward, lawmakers will consider Ybarra’s budget request alongside Otter’s and begin assigning priorities and piecing the budgets together.

Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Wendy Horman said setting the budget will require a balancing act. Horman is committed to covering district health care and operations costs. While Ybarra called for a $19 million increase, Otter recommended no new funding. Horman predicted JFAC might consider reducing the cost of some of the budget’s non-statutory line items, in order to cover health care and operations costs without exceeding state revenue targets.

Overall, public school funding is expected to account for 48 percent of all general fund spending next year, which is why Ybarra’s presentation is so closely scrutinized.

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