Complex Equation 

Learn where education money is going

If you live in Boise and you have kids, congratulations.

You're living in a school district that boasts diversity: More than 92 languages are spoken in our classrooms. You're living in a school district that boasts academic success: A Washington Post study ranked four Boise high schools among the top 9 percent in the United States. You're living in a school district that receives adequate funding: Voters regularly approve bond levies.

Paradoxically, because you live in Idaho, you also have our deepest sympathy: The Gem State ranks last in the nation in the amount of money it invests per student. And while the Idaho Legislature might remind us it actually increased K-12 spending for the 2013-2014 school year by 2.3 percent, lawmakers may forget to add they were barely keeping pace with inflation. In fact, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that, adjusted for inflation, Idaho's per-pupil spending has dipped 15.9 percent since the Great Recession. Additionally, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems ranks Idaho 50th in the nation for the percentage of high school seniors who attend a two- or four-year college or university.

In 2012, Jay Mathews, an education columnist for The Washington Post, told Boise Weekly that, considering the sad state of affairs when it comes to funding Idaho public schools, Boiseans may not realize how lucky they are.

"Overall, the Mountain West has been a disappointment," said Mathews, who has been studying educational trends since the 1990s. "Idaho's record is poor, with the exception of Boise with all four its high schools on the [best] list. This is rare for any district of its size nationally but for Idaho and the Mountain West, it's phenomenal."

So when the Boise School District saw an ever-increasing gap between what it was receiving from the Idaho Legislature and what administrators said they needed to keep standards high, they hit the bricks. In 2012, a grassroots effort, which was led by parents, organized an unprecedented campaign, with more than 400 volunteers going door to door, telling the story. They told how 57 percent of Boise's high school graduates attend college compared to 46 percent statewide; how 83 percent of Boise's graduates advance from freshman to sophomore year in college (higher than any other state in the country); and how the district refused to increase class sizes or make cuts to art, athletics or music programs. Ultimately, more than 20,000 Boise voters said "yes" to higher taxes for schools in the 2012 levy election, while around 8,000 said "no."

Meanwhile, school levies have been repeatedly defeated across Idaho, particularly in rural districts, where many homeowners say they can't shoulder the extra burden. And with a widening gap of spending-per-student in different Idaho school districts, Gem State K-12 public education has increasingly become a system of haves and have-nots.

"We just can't continue to operate at these levels," Mike Ferguson, former Idaho chief economist and recently-retired director of the Idaho Center on Fiscal Policy, told Boise Weekly in early 2013.

Ferguson pointed to the 30-to-1 gap between property tax values in the McCall-Donnelly School District compared to homeowners in the Snake River School District. Simply put, the exact same school levy of 1 percent would generate $4,700 per student in a McCall school while raising only $153 per student in Snake River.

And for those who argue that more comes out of their pocketbook to fund public schools, the Idaho Center for Public Policy reminds us that during the 1980s and 1990s, we spent 4.4 percent of our personal income on K-12 education but since 2000, it's closer to 3.4 percent—a full percentage point drop in the amount of our resources devoted to public schools.

Who's Doing the Math?

Having inadequate funding for Idaho's public schools is one thing. But abusing the public's trust by mismanaging those funds takes the trouble to a whole new level. Ask anyone in Nampa, a school district still living with a fair amount of scar tissue, following one of the worst scandals in recent memory.

"It just seemed, week after week, it was like getting punched in the face because there was another crisis," Pete Koehler told BW in the fall of 2013.

Koehler should know. After serving decades as a teacher and principal in the Nampa district, the soft-spoken man had his eye on retirement when he got a call, asking him to step up and become Nampa School District's interim superintendent—and to clean up somebody else's mess. What a mess it was.

The disgrace surfaced in 2012 when someone in the school administration accounting office suggested things were going swimmingly because the district showed a nearly $2 million surplus. But that simply wasn't true, not by a long shot. In fact, the district was operating on a $1 million deficit. Officials claimed that the problem was "camouflaged" by double-budgeted federal stimulus money. Making matters worse, state support for Nampa had been over-budgeted by nearly $1 million.

The river of red ink ran deep. First came the resignations of the superintendent and his deputy; then came furloughs and layoffs; then school officials thought they could save money by closing down an entire school, shuttering the doors on Sunny Ridge Elementary. But the district was still nearly $3 million in the hole. So next came transportation cuts, fewer substitutes and shorter class schedules.

"The past year has not been pleasant," Koehler told BW. "I still shake my head."

In July 2014, David Peterson took the reigns as Nampa School District's new full-time superintendent. He was recruited from Belfair, Wash., where he held the same title for the North Mason School District.

Koehler has since grabbed his fishing pole and begun that long-delayed retirement—and it's a fair bet that Koehler didn't receive half the accolades he deserved for helping save the Nampa School District's bacon.

But as Peterson prepared to help Nampa launch a new school year in fall 2014, it was important to note a rather chilling report published in the June 29, 2014 edition of the Idaho Press-Tribune that revealed there are few financial "backstops" from allowing the same financial crisis to happen again.

"Until you end up in a lot of trouble, it's hard to tell whether or not you're mismanaging your funds," CPA Scot Phillips, a partner at Boise-based Eide Bailly, told the Press-Tribune. "And that's a sliding scale of what somebody considers to be mismanagement."

Simply put, it turns out that auditors don't test Nampa's budgets. They only look to see if "the presentation of current finances is accurate," according to the report. And that review is far from being a financial safety net.

Time for a Substitute

No one knows what Tom Luna's second act will be and, quite honestly, maybe no one cares.

Following three years of political miscalculations and three controversial terms, the Superintendent of Idaho Public Instruction had a rare moment of cognition Jan. 27, 2014 when he said he would not run for reelection.

"I'm going to be working hard for the next 11 months, not being distracted with a campaign," Luna told reporters, saying he was focused on convincing the 2014 Idaho Legislature to pass Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter's education task force recommendations—all 20 of them.

Luna didn't have much luck with that either: By mid-2014, none of the recommendations had been fully implemented.

Some, such as Idaho Core Standards and ramping up public school high-speed Internet bandwidth, had already been long underway before the committee was formed. But others, such as a statewide electronic collaboration system, revamping the state's accountability structure and improvements to literary proficiency were still in detention.

And Luna's political capital is kaput. Following the statewide defeat of the so-called Luna Laws in November 2012, which the superintendent insisted had been inappropriately shackled to him, Luna followed up with another embarrassment in 2013 when he tried to push through a sweetheart multimillion, five-year deal with Education Networks of America to equip Idaho high schools with wireless Internet access.

Even lawmakers from his own party said Luna had shown "a lack of judgment." Rupert Republican Sen. Dean Cameron went as far as to say the deal was, "certainly a stretch and perhaps borderline on a lack of honesty." Luna limped away from the deal, and the countdown to the end of his political tenure had begun.

One thing is for certain: There will be a new substitute come January 2015, after the November 2014 face off between Democrat Jana Jones, who served as the state's chief deputy superintendent of schools from 2004-2006, and Republican Sherri Ybarra, curriculum director for the Mountain Home School District and a political newcomer. Ahead of the election, Jones looks, perhaps, like the Democrats' strongest contender for a statewide office, raising significantly more campaign cash than their Republican challenger. As of press time (late July 2014), Jones' campaign war chest had topped $20,000 while Ybarra reported less than $300.

But no matter who wins Idaho's top education job in the November 2014 general election, the recurring themes of public funds—and the management thereof—will yet again define the new era.

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