Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ed bill redone but opposition lingers

Teachers, legislators still protest funding cuts


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna's third and most controversial education reform bill has been reworked and reintroduced in a Senate committee for a hearing this week, but some legislators and teachers say it's little improvement over the original.

"Very little has changed in the bill, except it takes away the responsibility for the state to make hard decisions," said Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association.

Original Senate Bill 1113 was the third part of a three-bill education reform package introduced by Luna in January that would have provided students with laptops and increased technology while raising minimum teacher salaries.

The costs of these changes, along with the recently passed pay-for-performance system for teachers, would have been funded by eliminating at least 770 teaching positions and increasing class sizes.

The new bill, Senate Bill 1184, does not explicitly eliminate teaching positions, nor does it require online courses for Idaho high school students. What it does is cut state funding for teacher salaries, leaving it up to the districts to decide how to spend the diminished amounts.

Department of Education spokeswoman Michelle McGrath said the change was in response to school district opposition to increased class sizes.

"[We're] giving the districts less money, but they can decide how to spend it," she said. "We heard it loud and clear from school districts."

However, Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said flexibility with reduced funding is not really flexibility.

"They keep alluding to more flexibility, but it's a little bit of lip service," she said.

Wood agreed, saying the bill still mandates that districts pay for the merit pay program signed into law last week, as well as the increased technology in classrooms.

"What this bill is saying to the district is, 'You have to pay for these two things, and you can figure out how to make it work,'" she said.

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Though the new bill does not mandate eliminating teacher positions, both Stennett and Wood said they expect teacher furloughs and layoffs as districts struggle to make do.

Wood said teacher layoffs could be more than anticipated by Luna's earlier bill.

"The way this bill is written, by 2014, Idaho students could see 25 percent fewer teachers in the state," she said.

McGrath said layoffs were one way districts could deal with the decrease in funding, though they could also reduce teacher salaries.

The bill's fiscal note states that the bill will cost the state more than $5.5 million in fiscal year 2012, a cost that is meant to be offset by savings from the first part of Luna's reform package.

The new law allows schools to fire teachers in September if enrollment drops by more than 1 percent, so long as the district provides them with 10 percent severance pay. It also eliminates a retirement incentive program, for total savings of $9.4 million.

McGrath said the savings from the new version of Luna's third bill would still be enough to cover all expenses for technology and merit pay.

"It works out in the end so there's no cost to the state," she said.

According to a financial table provided by the department, the total package of three bills will be cost-neutral to the state for fiscal 2012. Unless certain school districts are funded as if consolidated, the state will be facing a $10.7 million shortfall in school funding in 2013.

McGrath said the entire package as originally proposed would have saved the state roughly $13,000 in fiscal year 2012. However, she said that without the reforms, state schools would be facing a $62 million shortfall.

In contrast to the original bills' hearing in committee, public testimony was not scheduled to be taken on the third bill during its hearing Tuesday. But Wood said she felt that legislators have not been listening to their constituents, even when public comment was allowed.

"Testimony has come in 10-to-1 against these bills, and they passed anyway," she said. "We live in a democracy, and we believe that's what democracy is all about, the ability to have your voice in the room."

The results of the hearing were not available as of press time. If the bill is approved by the committee, it would then be passed to the full Senate.

Stennett said she wasn't sure how she would vote on the bill if it is approved in committee, saying she needs more information.

"I'm just concerned that [the bill] is not super clear," she said. "And what is there is troubling."

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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