Budget committee plans more money for public schools next year


A.J. Balukoff, Democrat candidate for governor, and a couple of national health care policy analysts disagree on the impact expanding Medicaid would have on emergency room visits.

Idaho’s largest budget item is set for fiscal year 2013.

After more tense debate in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) Monday, the panel set an overall $1.566 billion budget for Idaho’s public education system. That represents a total spending hike of .4 percent, though the state money in the plan would jump 4.6 percent. The JFAC-approved budget calls for $1.28 billion in state funds for schools.

The spending plan includes money for merit pay, classroom tech upgrades and still fully funds teacher salaries after they were slated to be cut later this year.

The public schools budget could have been higher, though. The panel’s four Democrats challenged the plan, pushing an alternative that would have hiked stated spending by 5.3 percent and brought the total state funding to $1.29 billion. The overall Democratic budget would have reached $1.57 billion, but it was brushed off by Republicans through a series of party-line votes.

There were edgy moments while lawmakers decided the state’s single-largest expense, which encompasses more than 50 percent of Idaho spending. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, complained that the past two years’ education cuts were harmful to educators and suggested morale might be lacking among the ranks. “I’m afraid right now I feel there are a lot of teachers across the state who think we hate them,” LeFavour warned. “I think more teachers in our system deserve some sort of acknowledgement from us.”

But JFAC co-chair Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, didn’t take LeFavour’s complaint well. “I want to take exception to the comments that Sen. LeFavour made,” Cameron said. “I think both motions show respect for teachers.” Cameron admitted that he’d like to do more for teacher salaries, but warned economic turmoil plus federal budget uncertainty prevent that.
The budget includes $39 million for a merit pay system pushed as part of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s education reforms last year. The spending plan also features a raise for starting teachers, who could see their pay jump to $30,500, which will help 31 percent of Idaho educators.
Another part of Luna’s reforms will see funding as well. The budget calls for $11.5 million in spending to provide tech goodies for classrooms, including laptops for teachers and administrators. This portion of the reform plan was originally funded through cuts to the pool of money used to pay teachers, but that provision is in the process of being eliminated. Cameron is pushing legislation, which has already passed the Senate, to stop teacher pay cuts. The funding to do that, expected to be $18 million this year, is included in the education budget.

Public K-12 education will also see $4 million to fund student growth and $842,400 to pay for students to take dual-enrollment college courses while still in high school. The dual enrollment money was another part of Luna’s reforms.

Following the budget’s passage, Luna praised the move, saying the outlook is “very bright” for Idaho schools. He noted that 85 percent of teachers will see extra money through bonuses as part of the budget. Expected teacher bonuses are projected to average more than $2,000 each.

“I am very pleased with this budget,” Luna said.

The budget now heads to the House floor.

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The spending bill now heads to the House floor., The spending bill now heads to the House floor.
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