BOISE — The state budget-writing committee Tuesday approved teacher and classified staff pay raises, which the governor underlined as his top priorities of the session.
An effort to significantly cut the governor’s recommendation for school discretionary funding failed during budget-setting in the Joint Finance and Appropriation Committee meeting.
The public schools budgets included nearly $145 million in state general funds added for teacher career ladder changes as well as $97.4 million for a 4% increase in classified staff compensation and to account for funding shortfalls for the positions, which are being covered by other fund sources.
The state’s teachers union, the Idaho Education Association, released a statement lauding the investments in the budget.
“IEA members are especially excited about funding included in this budget to pay our critical education support professionals and classified school district employees a living wage,” the association wrote in an emailed statement. “These esteemed and essential school employees — office assistants, nurses, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, classroom paraprofessionals and others — are critical supports for students and certified educators alike. Without them, schools, students and educators suffer, and they deserve compensation that reflects their importance.”
The new teacher salary funding is meant to bring up starting teacher salaries to the top 10 in the nation at $47,477, according to the governor’s office. All teachers will receive funding for a $6,359 pay boost for each instructional and pupil service staff position, although salaries are set locally.
“We’re making the teaching profession in Idaho more competitive and rewarding, which keeps great teachers in the classroom to help our students achieve,” Gov. Brad Little wrote in an emailed statement.
The teacher budget passed in a 16-3 vote with one member absent; there was no discussion. The public schools operations budget, which included the line-item for classified staff, passed on a 15-4 vote.
The operations budget also included $48.8 million in school discretionary funding. Little in his statement said this represents the state’s largest-ever single-year boost of discretionary funds and that it will allow schools to meet their needs and reduce reliance on property taxes.
Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, attempted to cut this funding in about half to $23.8 million, saying the Legislature needed to compel schools to constrain their budgets, especially when there’s a possibility of a recession.
“I believe that by putting a constraint on the schools in this area, that they will become better budgeters,” Herndon said. “If I grant them as much as the original motion, then it’s as if I give my wife a credit card and she’s not subject to as many constraints, but if I give her a debit card and there’s only so much money in the account, it actually does cause her to spend less and be more efficient with taxpayer dollars.”
Sens. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, and Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, pushed back on the idea that public school budgets needed the added constraint, saying that because schools have been underfunded, they’ve had to rely more heavily on levies.
“I would much rather see this discretionary money from the state as opposed to seeing additional money put on property tax, when our districts don’t have enough money to keep the doors open,” Ward-Engelking said.
The overall public schools budget was a 16.4% increase in spending from the general fund, according to the Legislative Services Office. In a special session last year, the Legislature approved $330 million in ongoing spending for K-12 schools, the Idaho Press previously reported; how much of that money will be spent is up to the Legislature this session.
JFAC on Tuesday approved around $378.5 million in new state funds for public schools compared to fiscal year 2023.
JFAC Co-Chairperson Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said the appropriation “blows past last year’s total of $260 million” in new education funding allocated. She also said that the budget doesn’t include pending legislation that would also boost education spending if passed.
“We’re approaching over $200 million outside the public school budget that will go to support schools, some of that on a one-time basis,” she said. “But, as we’re approaching the $600 million mark this year for public schools, certainly we hope to see those levies not being utilized in the future.”
Most of the other budgets that fall under the public schools umbrella — which are administrators, teachers, operations, children’s programs, facilities, central services and educational services for the deaf and blind — passed through the committee with little discussion.
Members approved $4.5 million for a 4% increase in compensation for school administrators.
Spending under children’s programs included federal pandemic dollars that schools are spending down, such as the $277 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III funds.
The Educational Services for the Deaf and Blind budget included $310,000 to address hard-to-fill positions, such as an audiologist and new staff positions for the campus program, according to the motion. The relatively small budget, totaling $15.2 million, increased by 14% over the previous year.
The spending bills will need approval from the House and Senate before they may head to the governor’s desk. Failed budget bills will return to the committee for re-working.
Before the Legislature may adjourn, it must have a complete and balanced budget; the target end date is March 24.
Guido covers Idaho politics for the Lewiston Tribune, Moscow-Pullman Daily News and Idaho Press of Nampa. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be found on Twitter @EyeOnBoiseGuido.