House approves $1.3 billion schools budget

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Public school teachers stand to see state funding restored for salaries as part of a $1.3 billion public schools spending plan passed by the House Friday.

On a 52-16 vote, the House approved the fiscal year 2014 schools budget, by far Idaho's biggest annual budget and accounting for 47 percent of total state spending. The measure now goes to the Senate.

The appropriation for the upcoming fiscal year amounts to a 2.2 percent increase over last year's $1.27 billion budget. It's also the first budget passed since Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's disputed "Students Come First" education overhaul was defeated last year at the polls by voters.

If approved by senators next week, districts would get $11.3 million to unfreeze the state's "steps and lanes" teacher salary grid that pays educators according to years of service and education level.

The budget also increases minimum teacher salaries from $30,500 to $31,000, a 1.6 percent increase, and chips in $21 million for districts to use as a reward for educators who improve student achievement. It also directs $3 million for so-called technology pilot projects, to be awarded to schools or districts on a competitive basis, and provides another $3.75 million to train teachers as Idaho joins 47 other states in adopting "common core" standards for English, language arts and math.

"It provides funding for technology and includes new focus on Idaho core standards," said Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls and the sponsor.

Not everyone lauded the budget during Friday's debate.

Sixteen Republicans including Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, voted against the bill, with some voicing long-simmering disgruntlement that the Legislature's budget committee overstepped its mandate to set spending for the state, and went into the realm of setting policy that should be reserved for the House and Senate Education committees.

Boyle didn't like provisions including the plan to award up to $21 million for teacher bonuses, among other things, on grounds it was beyond the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee's purview.

Supporters including Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle and the Education Committee chairman, said he wasn't overly concerned. There's long been give and take over where budget setting ends and policy making begins. That won't end, he conceded.

"This is an ongoing conversation that's always been had," DeMordaunt said. "I'm not sure we're ever going to come to a conclusion...I'm certainly comfortable with it."

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, voted in favor of the bill, but blasted it for its failure to return state spending for public education to 2009 levels.

State funding for education reached a zenith in 2009, when lawmakers' original budget pumped in $1.4 billion to public schools. The next year legislators reduced those funds by almost $200 million.

"I don't like this budget, I don't like it at all, but I'll vote for it," said Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. "We've managed to tread some water with this budget ... (and it) is probably the best that can get through this Legislature."

Despite its imperfections, DeMordaunt said he was still pleased the budget includes more money for technology projects.

Beyond the pilot projects, it includes $2 million to complete work at high schools to equip their buildings with wireless Internet connections, and another $8 million in additional technology funding.

"Our districts are clamoring for the ability to use this utility called technology in whatever way they can," he said. "We're providing the funds so they can."

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