BOISE, Idaho (AP) — As Idaho voters decide on a sweeping education overhaul this November, teachers opposing the reforms may find themselves in a bind at the ballot box: By rejecting the changes, they could also be turning down a performance bonus after years of reduced or stagnant salaries.
Idaho introduced merit pay under the reforms approved in 2011 and teachers worked toward those financial incentives last year. But the bonuses won't be paid out until Nov. 15, nine days after the referendum, and state officials say they can't distribute the money if the laws are repealed.
The timeline is prompting outcry from the state's teachers union, which is fighting to overturn the reforms authored by Idaho schools superintendent Tom Luna.
"The state Department (of Education) is holding this money hostage," said Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr. "The teachers earned it, the legislature appropriated it last year and they intended it to be used for teacher compensation."
Luna's office counters that the bonus payout plan follows the law and the only barrier to handing out the money would be the referendum spearheaded by the union.
"It's not fair for them to say we're holding them hostage, they're the ones that put the referendum on the ballot, which is the only reason why these bonuses couldn't be paid," said Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said. "We did not ask for there to be a referendum."
If the laws are voted down, McGrath said, the state won't have the legal authority to distribute the funding.
Idaho has long debated whether teacher pay should be tied to things like student test scores.
Sonia Galaviz, a Boise elementary teacher opposing the reforms, said she hasn't yet learned if she earned a merit bonus while working in the Nampa district last year. She's more concerned about the future of public education in Idaho, not the pay-for-performance money, she said.
"Truthfully, that's the last thing on my mind," said Galaviz, whose salary has been frozen for three years. "I don't care about the bonus."
She'd rather the merit pay money go toward increasing all educator salaries, she said, not just those who meet pay-for-performance goals. With merit pay, however, Luna made the case for paying teachers differently, arguing the old system was unfair and compensated good teachers the same as the bad.
Luna's department contends not every teacher will be faced with the dilemma of wanting to oppose merit pay with a salary boost at stake.
"I don't think it's fair to say a majority of teachers are going to go the ballot box and have this dilemma," McGrath said. "I think some teachers might, but there are a lot of teachers who support pay-for performance."
The bonuses are being jeopardized following three years of recession-drive pay cuts and salary freezes. Idaho is also shifting $14.7 million from salaries to fund parts of Luna's reforms that pay for high school students to earn college credit and boost minimum teacher pay while restoring raises for those who further their education.
Lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 to avoid future salary shifts, and found $38.7 million in new revenue for merit pay, under the increased public schools budget for this year.
Luna predicts average teacher pay would go up $2,082 with the increased funding including the merit pay. He expects at least 85 percent of teachers will receive a bonus for things like raising student achievement and taking on hard-to-fill positions or leadership roles.
Luna's department insists its hands are tied when it comes to the timing of the bonus payout because the law says school districts were to receive the money as part of their third funding installment for the year. Districts receive that third piece of funding Nov. 15.
He couldn't have known the money budgeted for bonuses would be subject to voter approval days before it was scheduled to go out, McGrath said.
Luna has highlighted the potential loss of funding for high school laptops and teacher bonuses if his reforms are undone, while the union argues repeal would allow the state to ditch contentious provisions making Idaho less attractive to educators. The state would also restore the $14.7 million taken from salaries.
The reforms — with provisions limiting collective bargaining and eliminating continuing contracts likened to teacher tenure — were unpopular with many educators, and the potential loss of a bonus won't sway those teachers when voting on the reforms, the union president said.
"They won't let a thinly-veiled attempt to bully them into voting for these laws keep them from doing what's right," Cyr said.
While the union doesn't buy the argument that the bonuses can't be paid out until after the referendum, the law doesn't appear to have any wiggle room. The statute states: "All distributions of moneys to school districts shall be made as part of the third payment to school districts."
This language gives schools time to review, and appeal if necessary, the data used to calculate the bonuses, the state Department of Education said. That includes test scores for the 2011-2012 school year, which the department released Friday. Districts have until Oct. 1 to appeal the results.
Jessie L. Bonner can be reached at www.twitter.com/jessiebonner