Printed on: January 17, 2013

House chairman: No change in school funding this year

By Clark Corbin

BOISE -- House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMourdant encouraged lawmakers not to get any big ideas during a school finance briefing Wednesday.

Tim Hill, deputy superintendent of the Idaho State Department of Education, was on hand to give an overview of the school funding process.

DeMourdant, a Republican from Eagle, encouraged committee members to listen, take notes and interrupt with questions.

But the second half of his message could have applied to visitors at a museum: Look and listen, but don't touch.

"(School funding) is quite a complicated formula, but it is so critical we understand this," DeMourdant said. "Someday, we may want to take this on, but not this year, I promise."

DeMourdant's advice squared with Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's State of the State message -- that the governor wasn't seeking major education reform in the wake of voter repeal of the Students Come First legislation.

Instead, Otter wants his education task force to study reform options and build consensus.

Despite employing a short leash, DeMourdant wants members of the committee to understand how schools receive money and how education drives the state budget. This year, spending on public schools accounts for 47 percent of overall state spending.

Schools, and their $1.3 billion price tag, are by far the biggest budget item.

Health and Human Services spending (including Medicaid) accounts for 24.2 percent of the budget; public safety (including prisons) gobbles up 9.4 percent.

Colleges grab another 8.4 percent, while other education programs -- including vocational rehabilitation and the superintendent of public instruction's office -- account for 5.1 percent.

That leaves just 5.5 percent of the budget for all other state departments and programs to share.

During his more-than-90-minute presentation, Hill made it clear he wasn't interested in advising lawmakers on reform.

"I'm not here for policy," Hill said. "I'm here to tell you how it works, not how it should work."

No matter what, he said, lawmakers cannot change the state's next payment to schools. That money will be sent to districts in February based on the 2013 budget and reflect the Nov. 6 repeal of the Students Come First laws.

Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Wendy Horman, a member of the Bonneville Joint School District 93 school board, said local school officials soon will craft their 2013-14 budgets.

Although Otter doesn't want major school legislation, several lawmakers, including Horman, have said they favor minor education changes.

Possibilities include returning money that had been set aside for technology, changing contract negotiations and restoring flexibility in the "use it or lose it" money for staffing -- all of which could have budget implications for local schools.

"It is always difficult to set those (local district) budgets not knowing what the Legislature will be doing," Horman said. "(School boards) are doing the same thing the Legislature is doing right now, and are trying to figure out what the heck is the Legislature going to send us."

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