Printed on: September 21, 2012

City Club to host former state chief economist

By Christina Lords

When Michael Ferguson began studying the decline in state-allocated funding for Idaho's public school system, he thought it might be a temporary result of the nation's great recession.

What he found in his Idaho Public School Funding -- 1980 to 2013 -- report, however, was something else entirely.

"What it boils down to is, the report looked at what I thought might be a temporary situation," he said. "What it essentially uncovered is what I would characterize as a very significant trend to defund public education."

Ferguson, director of the nonprofit Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy and former chief economist in the governor's budget office, will present the report's findings today at the City Club of Idaho Falls' monthly forum.

The presentation and a question-and-answer session will begin at 12:30 p.m. in the multipurpose room of the Student Union Building at the Idaho State University-Idaho Falls campus, 1784 Science Center Drive. Entry for the event is $5.

Ferguson's report, released in April, focuses on the recent history of public school maintenance and operations funding, which provides money for teacher salaries, utilities and capital projects.

As state funding has dropped since 2000, more districts are turning to override levies -- and taxpayers -- to make up the difference, Ferguson said.

In 1999, 41 districts supplemented the maintenance and operations portion of their budgets with override levies, Ferguson said.

For the 2012-13 school year, that number jumped to 84 districts.

"This dramatic change in the funding for public schools naturally leads to the question: Where did the money go?" the report said. "The short answer is tax cuts and the Health and Human Services part of the state budget, which is mostly Medicaid."

One of the report's major findings is districts are more and more reliant on unequalized property tax levies (meaning there is no adjustment for the vastly different amount of money spent per student in Idaho's 115 school districts) to support maintenance and operations.

"That means the amount of resources available to a child depends on what school district they're in," Ferguson said.

That's in direct conflict with the Idaho Constitution, which places a clear responsibility on the state Legislature to provide "a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools," he said.

Ferguson said he hopes the report's findings will allow educators, members of the public and legislators to begin discussing issues facing public school funding.

"The information this is providing is opening eyes and is somewhat startling to people," he said. "It's fair to say people don't generally realize what the situation is. ... My focus is opening the dialogue, and if it's seen as a problem, we need to see what needs to be done to solve the problem."

Features writer Christina Lords can be reached at 542-6762. Comment on this story at Post Talk at www.postregi

On the internet

On the Internet: View the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy's Idaho Public School Funding report: under the information and analysis tab