Area schools brace for more cuts

Administrators unsure how education reforms will affect spending

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COEUR d'ALENE - Administrators in Kootenai County's three largest school districts are bracing for a third consecutive year with less state funding than they received the previous year.

The education budget set Monday by lawmakers on the state's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee reduces funding for Idaho public schools by $47 million.

For the Coeur d'Alene School District, the reduction means $1.6 million less from the state for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The Post Falls School District is looking at a $905,000 cut in state funding.

"There is a lot less known at this time than is normally known at this point in the process," said Matt Handelman, Coeur d'Alene's assistant superintendent.

Much of the uncertainty stems from new education reforms that are connected to the spending plan.

Gov. Butch Otter already signed two out of three pieces of legislation that comprise a comprehensive education overhaul supported by Idaho public school chief Tom Luna and the governor. One of the measures limits the bargaining powers of district-level local teachers unions, and also eliminates tenure for new teachers, and any teachers who have not yet been given tenure. The other bill provides pay bonuses for high-performing schools and individual teachers.

The third piece of the education reform package was passed by the Idaho Senate last week, and is on its way to the House. That legislation calls for shifting funding from teachers salaries to pay for advanced classroom technology, and to pay for the performance bonuses detailed in another part of the reform package.

"We knew we were going to be facing significant reductions, but are very frustrated that the Legislature saw fit to make deeper cuts in staffing funding just to give it back for buying technology," said Tom Taggart, business director for the Lakeland School District.

All other state budgets have had capital expenses put on hold, Taggart said, with that money going to maintaining operations, while "the public school budget is being cut to instead spend scarce dollars on equipment."

The amount the Lakeland School District will receive for technology would fund 3.5 teachers positions, Taggart said. The district is operating with $772 less state funding per student. "We are going into the third year of reduced budgets and this year our staff feels like a truck ran them over," Taggart said. "We face huge morale problems that only compound a very difficult situation."

Lakeland administrators are exploring how they will deal with the new funding cut. It will be difficult, Taggart said, to avoid reductions in programs, staffing, pay and benefits.

"I have been involved in local government in Kootenai County for almost 29 years and I have never been as frustrated about something the Legislature has done," Taggart said. "They deliberately left out people who actually knew what goes on in Idaho schools."

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