BOISE — Idaho lawmakers, in a series of unanimous votes on Monday, set a $1.9 billion public school budget for next year that reflects a 6.1 percent increase over this year.

That’s well below the 8 percent-plus that state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra requested and slightly below Gov. Brad Little’s proposed 6.14 percent increase in state general funds. But the budget set by the 20-member Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee still includes key items both wanted, including doubling funding for early literacy in kindergarten through third grade, as Little requested; and also adding $14.6 million for a 3.4 percent increase in discretionary funds to school districts, to cover both health insurance cost increases and general inflation, as Ybarra sought.

“I’m pleased with it, because of our revenue projections coming in so low,” said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, who was among a bipartisan group of a half-dozen JFAC members who crafted the budget. “I’d hoped for more.” But, she said, “Once we realized that we didn’t have the revenues we thought we were going to have, we had to be realistic.”

The revenue shortfall is attributed to individual income tax withholding issues tied to state and federal tax code changes. If so, the state will see that revenue when Idahoans file their state income tax returns and find they have taxes due.

“This isn’t everything we asked for,” Ybarra said, “but the budget going forward represents huge strides for Idaho schools in terms of career ladder salary increases for teachers, increased discretionary funding for districts, an early literacy initiative and more advanced opportunities for high school students as they set their sights on college and career. Those are top priorities for the year ahead, meeting the requests of educators and parents throughout Idaho.”

The budget still needs passage in both the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by the joint committee.

The budget fully funds the fifth year of the career ladder teacher-pay program, at $49.7 million, and $7.2 million to launch master educator premiums; it includes a 3 percent base salary increase for school administrators and classified staff who aren’t on the career ladder; and it makes a series of other increases and decreases in various distributions to reach a total net general fund increase for public schools next year of $109 million.

Not funded were Ybarra’s requests for a $19.5 million “Keep Idaho Students Safe” or KISS school safety program; an additional 2 percent pay boost for administrators and classified staff; an additional $27.8 million for teacher pay raises at all levels with a focus on the most-experienced teachers; and various other increases for expansion of mastery-based education, classroom technology and more.

“I’m very disappointed that no money was approved for our Keep Idaho Students Safe initiative,” Ybarra said. “Our efforts will continue, and Idaho school districts will continue doing their utmost to keep their students safe. This conversation is not over.”

Legislative budget writers relied on a swap between two key budget items in order to fund both the discretionary funds increase and the literacy expansion, without exceeding Little’s proposed budget: Requests for additional teacher pay increases above those already required by law to fund the fifth year of the teacher career ladder; and the literacy funding line item itself.

For additional teacher pay, Ybarra requested $27.8 million, while Little recommended $11.4 million to raise Idaho’s starting teacher salary next year to $40,000. Neither is in the JFAC-approved budget.

However, Little’s request still is on the table; he’s introduced legislation to spread it out over two years, rather than get the starting salary up to $40,000 next year. That would mean the state’s minimum teacher salary would rise to $38,500 next year, then $40,000 the year after. The current minimum is $35,800, though that would rise next year under the teacher career ladder to $37,000. The change means Little would add just $3.8 million to next year’s budget for the extra salary boost, if his bill passes, rather than $11.4 million. In the second year, the fiscal impact would be an additional $7.7 million.

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If the governor’s bill passes, JFAC will fund the fiscal year 2020 portion of the cost with a follow-up appropriation bill for the $3.8 million.

On the governor’s early-literacy proposal, JFAC fully funded it at $13.2 million but pulled just $10 million of that from the state general fund. The other $3.2 million was drawn from the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which has a balance of about $19 million. It doesn’t earn enough to fund the state scholarships each year; instead, state general funds cover the vast majority of those, while the fund brings in about $200,000 in interest earnings.

“That money’s just kind of been sitting there,” Ward-Engelking said. “We haven’t touched it for several years — I think we kind of forgot it was there.” She said lawmakers reached into that fund to cover the governor’s top-priority literacy expansion, because “funds are short this year, due to our revenue problems.”

Former Gov. Butch Otter established the fund with the idea of pumping it up to $100 million and funding future Opportunity Scholarships solely from its earnings, but the Legislature only appropriated $20 million for it; they tapped about $1 million of that to keep the scholarships going during the great recession. The scholarships currently total around $13.7 million in state general funds each year.

When the joint committee gets to other budgets and takes up Little’s proposal to boost the amount of Opportunity Scholarships handed out each year by $7 million next year, budget writers may turn to tapping the corpus of the fund again to fund that request on a one-time basis, Ward-Engelking said.

So, between the $3.2 million that JFAC shifted, on a one-time basis, from the general fund to the dedicated Opportunity Scholarship Fund to fully fund the governor’s early-literacy initiative, and the $11.4 million in the governor’s original budget proposal not included in the budget for additional teacher raises next year, there was enough to cover funding the increase in discretionary funds.

“The committee felt very strongly about putting that back in,” Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, JFAC’s House co-chair, told Idaho Education News.

The budget also includes $7.2 million for the first year of master teacher premiums, which would provide up to $4,000 a year for high-performing veteran teachers. Ybarra had requested close to $12 million. Ward-Engelking said if more teachers qualify than the appropriation covers, the state would have to dip into its Public Education Stabilization Fund to cover the difference.

It also includes a $3 million increase in the Advanced Opportunities program, which pays for Idaho high school students to earn college credits, as requested by both Little and Ybarra.

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, JFAC’s Senate co-chair, said the JFAC working group spent “countless hours” working on the budget, which adds up to nearly half of Idaho’s general fund budget. He noted the unanimous votes on all of its seven divisions. “I think that speaks well for the hard work of the working group,” Bair said, “and wow, that’s incredible. I think that’s a marvelous achievement.”

In addition to Ward-Engelking, the working group included Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls; Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg; Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle; Sen Jim Woodward, R-Sagle; Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville; and Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding.

When federal and dedicated funds that flow to education in Idaho are added to the general-fund appropriation that lawmakers set, the total budget for Idaho’s public schools next year comes to nearly $2.3 billion, a 5.8 percent increase in total funds.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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