Trailer park: Lawmakers pass competing bills to address four-day school issues

Competing bills making major changes to House Bill 521 are crossing the Statehouse rotunda, where their fates are uncertain in the waning days of the legislative session. 

HB 521, the sweeping school facilities funding bill, includes a controversial provision that discourages school districts from switching to four-day school weeks. The House and Senate on Tuesday advanced separate “trailer” bills, addressing concerns about the provision, which directs the State Board of Education to set minimum instructional days and teacher contract days. 

In Statehouse lingo, “trailers” refer to followup bills designed to fix or undo pieces of an earlier bill. HB 521, a 30-page omnibus, has passed both houses and awaits Gov. Brad Little’s expected signature.

The competing trailer bills address the four-day issue, but somewhat differently.

One of the Senate’s trailer bills altogether scraps the four-day language. The House version, on the other hand, keeps minimum classroom time requirements but gives the State Board flexibility to use a softer touch when setting the new standards. Republican leadership in both chambers swiftly introduced the bills in committees Tuesday morning and suspended their procedural rules to pass them on House and Senate floors. 

What the House did Tuesday

House Bill 742 still requires districts to abide by minimum classroom and teacher work time, but it allows those standards to be based on hours, rather than only days. It also pushes the State Board’s deadline to implement the minimum standards back by a year. 

Those changes seek to assuage confusion and concern around the existing four-day provision in the omnibus HB 521; the bill’s language is unclear as whether a school district would forfeit the facilities funding by switching to a four-day week. And a minimum class day requirement could upend next year’s school calendars for the 76 traditional school districts currently operating on four days.

Adding minimum hours as a consideration for the State Board is a “light touch … that we thought would give some latitude there,” House Majority Leader Jason Monks told Idaho Education News. But the trailer bill still has some “teeth” ensuring districts maintain baseline classroom and teacher work schedules. “If you don’t follow the law, then you’re not going to be able to get that additional money,” said Monks, R-Meridian. 

The House voted 63-4 in favor of its trailer bill, with four Democrats opposed, after sparing debate Tuesday afternoon. The quiet House vote followed a raucous House Education Committee meeting earlier in the day, which saw three different motions to advance or hold HB 742. 

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, proposed holding the bill in committee to wait for the Senate trailers. Rep. Lori McCann moved to advance the bill to the House floor without a recommendation that it pass. 

“I’ve never heard anyone come to the committee and tell us that there’s been a problem with our school districts not fulfilling their requirements … on hours or days,” said McCann, R-Lewiston.

A motion to advance the bill with a “do-pass” recommendation ultimately prevailed in the committee. Rep. Chris Mathias, a House Education member, opposed that motion in the morning, saying he didn’t understand the logic behind the four-day restrictions. But by the afternoon, Mathias said he’d been persuaded to support the trailer bill. 

“Since we have put these districts in an untenable position, we now have an obligation to help them get out of that,” Mathias, D-Boise, said on the House floor. “While I hope that the body across the rotunda gives this bill a fair shake, I hope this body gives their bills a fair shake. In a spirit of hopefulness, and perhaps naivete, I think we can do that.”

In addition to the four-day week provision amendments, the House’s trailer bill would give the Senate authority to approve or deny a future gubernatorial appointment for the Office of the State Board of Education’s executive director. And it would redirect any misused facilities funds to rural schools. 

What the Senate did Tuesday

While the House was taking up its trailer bill, the Senate doubled down — passing two bills with very different objectives.

The first, Senate Bill 1452, strips out all language discouraging schools from adopting a four-day schedule. The bill also gives the Senate the power to confirm the State Board’s executive director — but this tangential issue didn’t come up in Tuesday afternoon’s debate.

Instead, senators focused their attention and heaped their praise on four-day schools.

Presenting the bill on the floor, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dave Lent shared data from the 2023 Idaho Reading Indicator, which indicated that many of the state’s top-performing schools operate on a four-day calendar. Lent, R-Idaho Falls, said an engaged superintendent and board of trustees can be the key to student success.

“Sometimes there’s a cultural issue that’s more important than a structure and process,” he said.

State officials should not make decisions about local school schedules, said Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley. Instead, that decision should rest with locally elected trustees. “I’m going to trust them.”

Like all of the facilities trailer bills, SB 1452 is on a fast track. But this bill moved especially quickly. The Senate State Affairs Committee introduced the bill Tuesday morning. By midafternoon, the Senate sped up its schedule to vote on it immediately.

SB 1452 passed on a 33-1 vote, with Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, casting the only dissenting vote.

The debate was more spirited, and the outcome closer, when the Senate turned to a bill to recalculate the school facilities formula.

Senate Bill 1440 attempts to push more money into rural schools, including five of the state’s tiniest districts. The Arbon, Avery, Pleasant Valley Elementary, Prairie Elementary and Three Creek Elementary districts would receive $100,000 apiece for facilities, up from the $25,000 minimum in the original facilities bill.

But SB 1440 also would cap payments at $100 million. That cap affects only the West Ada School District, which stands to receive some $140 million from the original bill.

Not surprisingly, senators representing the West Ada argued against the bill.

Sen. Treg Bernt acknowledged the challenges facing rural schools, but the Meridian Republican noted that he represents one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. “And with that comes problems.”

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said the money shift “doesn’t solve the foundational issue” facing the state: distributing dollars to best address building needs.

A majority of senators signed onto the shift, but sometimes reluctantly.

“We can do better,” said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise. “It’s a step. It’s what we can do now.”

The bill passed on a 22-12 vote.

The next moves

It’s unclear what happens next, with little time remaining in the session. That was a theme during Tuesday’s Senate debates. Before voting for one trailer bill and opposing the other, Den Hartog said she didn’t know what to expect next.

One Senate bill evidently won’t find favor among House GOP leadership. Reworking the formula would “completely undo” HB 521’s distribution method, said Monks, whose home school district is West Ada. “That would be very offensive in my world, because it takes from some districts and gives more to other districts.”

It’s feasible that none of the trailer bills move forward, and Monks didn’t deny that’s a possibility after chiding the Senate for taking nearly a month to vote on HB 521.

“Obviously, we can make things happen very quickly, if need be,” he said, “but the time for negotiations is quickly fading away.”


Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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