Educational organizations gear up for legislative session


BOISE (IdahoEdNews.org) — The Idaho Association of School Administrators anticipates several legislative “hot topics” in the upcoming session.

IASA Executive Director Andy Grover discussed the potential legislative measures before a crowd of at least 100 at the organization’s annual conference on Wednesday. Representatives from the Idaho School Boards Association and the State Board of Education were also present.

The IASA has not yet voted on its legislative direction, but will consider Wednesday’s comments when it does later this year.

Here’s what the IASA has on its radar.

Insurance cover

Despite a funding increase designed to help schools transition employees to the state insurance plan, many districts still can’t afford to make the switch. Compared to many school plans, the state plan offers enhanced benefits at lower premiums.

Gov. Brad Little signed a bill in March allocating an additional $105 million to cover the annual costs of enrolling school employees in the state plan. The bill also included a one-time increase of $75.5 million to cover initial costs.

But schools still need $80 million to $85 million in ongoing funding to make the change, according to the IASA.

“Currently that’s still out of reach for a lot of our districts,” Grover said.

Meanwhile, a portion of the state’s discretionary fund is set aside for insurance: about $13,300 per class unit. If districts don’t use some or all of this money for insurance, they can redirect the rest to other programs. But there are fears that lawmakers will restrict this flexibility in 2023.

Work and wages

Raising salaries for classified personnel — non-teaching employees who do not need State Department certification — is a major concern.

From paraprofessionals to bus drivers to cafeteria workers, Grover says classified personnel are an integral part of schools. But with just weeks to go back to school, districts are still facing hiring shortages, including a lack of classified employees.

Most districts pay at least $12 an hour for classified personnel, an increase from previous years. But Grover says the pay isn’t competitive, considering districts in neighboring states pay at least $15 an hour.

To help fund classified personnel, districts received a 7% increase last year, up from about 2% in previous years. But the historic increase has translated into an increase of about 40 cents an hour for staff members in many districts, according to ISBA Director of Policy and Government Affairs Quinn Perry.

“You’d have to be really deep in the sand not to know it’s a problem,” Perry said.

Federal funding and regulation

The IASA has also expressed concern that lawmakers will push to reject federal funding entirely, in exchange for exemptions from federal law. While the organization isn’t sure if the efforts will progress, they advised administrators to be prepared to have that conversation with lawmakers.

The push likely comes in light of the Biden administration’s proposed changes to Title IX, Perry said. The amendments would consider sex discrimination to include gender identity and sexual orientation.

“I think that debate is likely,” Perry said. “I think it’s something to be prepared for…and I just hope people are aware that it doesn’t absolve you of the very many regulations you’ll still have to follow.”

Rejecting federal funding is not new to the Legislative Assembly, as one participant pointed out. In March 2021, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have allowed the State Department to access nearly $6 million in federal pre-K grants. Some lawmakers feared the money would fund social justice indoctrination in preschools.

The state collects about $250 million a year in federal funds for education — not including increased one-time federal dollars received during the pandemic.

One-time funding

Between COVID emergency relief funds and Idaho’s budget surplus, districts have received a one-time influx of funding. But school leaders are reluctant to use the money for long-term projects because the funding is unreliable.

Grover led a brainstorming session on Wednesday, inviting directors to discuss how to use one-time funds. Their ideas included:

  • Cover start-up costs for software licenses.
  • Purchase program, books related to the program online. According to one administrator, the cost to an average-sized district of adopting a new program is more than $1 million.
  • Purchase of new buses or other modes of student transportation.
  • Hire a consultant to do a full checkup of the facilities. The Office of Performance Evaluations released a study in January estimating that schools in Idaho are at least $1 billion behind in school facilities, but there is generally a lack of data on facilities, said Perry.
  • Put in place incentives to attract and retain teachers.
  • Create a list of allowable expenses to give districts more freedom. Blackfoot, as District Superintendent Brian Kress pointed out, has different needs than larger districts.

The IASA also predicts a slowdown in many districts after federal emergency relief funds run out.

ESA and vouchers

Legislation on education savings accounts and tuition vouchers remains a major concern for the IASA.

In March, the House Education Committee narrowly rejected a bill that would have allowed families to spend public funds on private school tuition and fees through an ESA. In doing so, the bill would have diverted state funding from public schools.

Voucher bills stem from a growing demand for school choice in Idaho, largely due to concerns about curriculum and accountability in public schools.

But many at Wednesday’s meeting argued that vouchers would create a greater lack of accountability because private schools don’t meet the same public record requirements as public schools.

Education Quality Act

Grover briefly covered the Quality Education Act, an election initiative that is expected to appear on the ballot in November.

The Reclaim Idaho measure would generate $323 million for K-12 schools by raising Idaho’s corporate and major revenue taxes. But it could reverse this year’s income tax cuts and cost taxpayers $573 million instead.

None of the organizations present at Wednesday’s meeting took a position on the initiative, but likely will in the coming months.

This article was originally published on IdahoEdNews.org on August 4, 2022

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