JFAC draws up K-12 budget bills

With a host of accounting maneuvers — but limited fireworks — legislative budget-writers pieced together a K-12 spending plan on Friday morning.

The budgets would put more than $2 billion of state general fund tax dollars into K-12 for the first time in Idaho’s history. But an infusion of federal coronavirus stimulus dollars will boost the budgets even more.

The bottom line: General fund spending would increase by $73.6 million, or 3.7 percent. But when federal dollars and dedicated funds are added into the mix, K-12 spending would increase by $309.8 million, or 13.2 percent.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s budget bills still need to pass the House and the Senate. Since K-12 represents the state’s largest spending commitment, and nearly half of the overall state budget, the bills are a linchpin to wrapping up the 2021 session and the Legislature’s work.

But if Friday’s JFAC votes are any indication, the K-12 budgets could sail through the two houses with ease, as they have in recent years. JFAC passed many of the budgets unanimously, or with only a smattering of opposition from House conservatives.

What’s in the budgets

Some spending highlights:

Teacher salaries. The 2021-22 budget fully funds another year of teacher pay raises under the career ladder plan. Gov. Brad Little recommended the $44.9 million, emphasizing the need to provide pay raises for veteran teachers. This is one key area where JFAC’s budgets align with Little’s spending blueprint.

Learning loss. However, here’s one place where JFAC went beyond Little’s request. Legislators want to spend a total of $30 million of federal money to address pandemic-related learning loss — $10 million in the budget year ending June 30, and $20 million in 2021-22. JFAC wants to fully fund Little’s proposed $20 million summer reading program for kindergarten through third-grade students, while spending an additional $10 million to address other learning gaps in the K-12 system.

Classroom technology. A $36.5 million line item for 2021-22. Little requested $26.5 million of state general fund dollars; JFAC added $10 million of federal funding.

Advanced opportunities. A $29.7 million line item for 2021-22. Anticipating a post-pandemic enrollment surge in the program — which covers student costs for dual-credit classes, Advanced Placement tests and other items — Little requested a $9.7 million increase. JFAC agreed.

Discretionary spending. JFAC wants to put an additional $19.9 million into this line item — which helps cover the cost of employee benefits or other local needs. This would come to $29,542 per school “support unit,” a budgetary term that is roughly equal to a classroom.

Online virtual charters. JFAC signed off on another $6.1 million for the Idaho Virtual Academy and Inspire Connections Academy, which took on thousands of additional students during the pandemic.

Limited debate, and budget shuffling

As JFAC sifted through a series of motions and budget shifts, the only opposition came from Reps. Ron Nate and Priscilla Giddings, two conservative Republicans who are first-year JFAC members.

At one point, Nate questioned the need for the federal coronavirus cash infusions, when schools were closed during the spring and some have not returned to full-time in-person learning.

“If there’s less education going on … shouldn’t there be less expenses in the schools?” said Nate, R-Rexburg.

Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, noted that salaries and benefits account for the bulk of K-12 spending, and those costs didn’t change during the pandemic.

At another point — as JFAC considered the teachers’ salary bill, accounting for more than $1.1 billion — Nate asked if the state had enough cash on hand to cover the bill. After getting a clarification from Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, the committee’s co-chairman, Nate voted for the teacher salary bill, which passed JFAC unanimously.

In the absence of debate and disagreement, JFAC spent much of Friday morning navigating a shifting budget. Little and lawmakers are using the federal dollars as budgetary backfill, using these funds to cover a host of education costs that qualify under federal spending rules.

And the flow of federal funds will continue. Under the latest federal stimulus law, signed this week by President Biden, Idaho stands to receive another $430 million in aid for schools, Division of Financial Management director Alex Adams told JFAC.

Idaho Education News covered Friday’s budget hearing remotely.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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