The boneyard 

Cutting schools to spite your face

For three months at the Capitol Annex there has been much sound but little fury over cuts to public education.

From the state superintendent of public instruction down to the handful of teachers, rebel Republicans, union leaders and impotent Democrats, we have heard some protest but little suggestion for funding public schools in a recession.

But 12 minutes into a historic "hearing" held last week in Boise High School's large auditorium, a mother from Moscow hit the nail on the head, suggesting she'd be willing to pay a bit more income or sales tax to fund Idaho schools.

"You can't complain about cuts and not offer a solution as far as I'm concerned," Suzie Davis told Unda' the Rotunda.

Davis is a building aide at John Russell Elementary School in Moscow, where her daughter is enrolled. She was one of more than 600 teachers, parents and other citizens who attended an extra-legislative hearing organized by the Idaho Education Association last week.

The public forum drew at least 37 legislators, including much of the budget committee, as well as Superintendent Tom Luna—an impressive showing for an evening, union-sponsored event that held no legal weight.

Joint Finance and Appropriations Co-chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, a Republican from Rupert, ran the meeting as he would have run a regular committee hearing, down to using his gavel to lecture the public on how difficult lawmakers' jobs are. (It was like any hearing other than his own committee's; the budget committee does not take public testimony.)

The testimony raised several new ideas that had not been yet been broached down State Street at the Capitol Annex, calling into question the wisdom of not allowing the public to weigh in on budgets.

Laurie Kiester, an Idaho Falls teacher who lives in Shelley, presented a list of nine ideas, including repealing the 2006 tax shift that removed property tax revenue from Idaho schools' funding formula.

"Mr. Risch did a no-no," Kiester said, referring to former Gov.-now-Sen. Jim Risch, who pushed the tax shift through the Legislature in a one-day session in late 2006.

The move replaced $260 million in property tax support for public schools with an estimated $210 million in new sales tax revenue. Through February, this year's sales tax collections are down $321.1 million, accounting for a major portion of the state's revenue shortfall. Property tax values, on the other hand, are more stable.

Kiester also suggested cutting the various educational "initiatives" that the state funds rather than cutting teacher salaries.

"Those initiatives—I don't need them to teach my students," Kiester said.

The initiatives—the Idaho Reading Initiative ($2.8 million) and the Idaho Math Initiative ($4 million)—cost about as much as freezing teachers on the salary grid for a year ($6 million) and eliminating an early retirement benefit ($2 million) will save.

And then Adam Collins, an Eagle High School teacher, made an even more provocative suggestion: save money on testing rather than on teaching.

"It is striking to me that these tests are held more sacred than the people who are expected to bring students up to the level required by these tests," Collins said.

While the teachers and parents in the room universally acknowledged that educators are not paid enough in Idaho—several testified that they qualify for free and reduced lunch for their own children and even for food stamps—an oft-heard expression at the statehouse is that teachers need to "feel the pain" like everyone else.

But even deeper philosophical divides exist between the State Department of Education and the schools and school districts it influences. The root of the divide depends upon whom you ask, but both sides claim to have the best interests of students at heart.

Luna, who initially proposed a 5.3 percent jump in public school funding and then came out with a list of $62 million in acceptable cuts once the session began, said he aimed to identify cuts that would "not negatively affect student achievement," by which he means classroom supplies, tests for teachers and remediation for students.

"I think this budget protects students," Luna told the large gathering at Boise High School to zero applause.

Veteran teacher Joanne Davis, who introduced herself as a dinosaur, asked who will replace teachers of her generation—women who had few other options if they wished to pursue a career.

"The highly qualified young people of today are not going to put up with the abuse we have," Davis said.

In other words, the people who work in schools affect children most directly, more than assessments and remediation and paper.

While this may be the deep philosophical question underlying the setting of budgets, there are more mundane emotions at work as well.

"There's a desire to do away with collective bargaining and continuing contracts," said Sen. Gary Schroeder, one of Moscow's rebel Republican lawmakers and a former chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

There is a strong impression that some of the suggested cuts—denying teachers a year's advancement on the experience scale of their salary grid, eliminating their early retirement benefit and laying out a process by which districts can declare a financial emergency and get out of their negotiated contracts—are a direct challenge to teachers and the organization that represents them, the Idaho Education Association.

The legislative champion of these policy changes, Rep. Bob Nonini, a Coeur d'Alene financial consultant and Republican, makes a straight fiscal pitch for the cuts. He, like Luna, argues that no one wants to make the cuts, but that it's necessary in this economy.

But Nonini gives subtle clues that he has some deeper, underlying resentment that he airs through his lawmaking powers. As he rose to testify for House Bill 262, which freezes teacher salaries for a year and phases out their early retirement, Nonini noted the meeting was getting started a bit late.

"I didn't know if we were waiting for a group of fourth graders or something," he joshed, looking in the direction of IEA leadership in the audience.

And then, following the emotional and poetic testimony of a young Caldwell High School teacher, who teared up while speaking about the poverty in which she and her colleagues live, Nonini publicly dismissed her concerns about Idaho's relatively low teacher pay.

"She still has a job," he said. "At least there is a breadwinner."

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