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Otter, Luna split over $19.7 million for teacher pay

posted Jan 21, 2012, 6:24 AM by Common Sense

Otter, Luna split over $19.7 million for teacher pay

Failing to restore the money could boost chances of overturning Students Come First in November.

 Dan Popkey, Idaho Statesman Published: 01/20/12

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 Four days before the Legislature convened, Gov. Butch Otter offered a cryptic answer when I asked if his vow to restore school funding still stood.

“I have not relieved myself of my commitment to make sure that the last dollar taken is the first dollar replaced — and that was education,” Otter said Jan. 5.

As another questioner spoke, Otter interrupted. “Within our ability to do so,” he said, laughing. “Let me put it that way.”

It turns out the joke is on Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, Otter’s partner in 2011’s Students Come First laws.

Otter’s budget follows the letter of the new law, removing money the state gives school districts for salaries for teachers, administrators and support staff. Instead, the cash buys computers for students and funds a “pay for performance” plan.

But Luna, eyeing the first surplus in four years, has seller’s remorse. He seeks to remove the most politically powerful argument against his plan: that it cuts teacher pay and increases class size.

To make Luna’s 1-to-1 computer mandate and pay for performance work, Otter and lawmakers agreed to strip $57 million from salaries, spread over four years, for an overall shift of 6.2 percent. This fiscal year, $14.8 million was moved. Next year, the transfer is $19.7 million.

Otter recommends $38.8 million for pay for performance for 15,000 teachers now averaging $45,000 a year. If revenue meets expectations, he would add $41.1 million for one-time bonuses for state workers, with $25.5 million of that for teachers.

Beyond that, Otter has other priorities, including $45 million for tax cuts, $60 million for savings accounts and $5 million for a new program to stimulate tech jobs.

On the same day Otter revised his schools-first promise, he met with an unhappy Luna. According to one account, Luna and Otter Deputy Chief of Staff Roger Brown were yelling at one another. Another source told me it was simply a long “give and take.”

Luna said he wouldn’t talk to me because he believes I’m trying to drive a wedge between him and the governor. Otter also declined comment, saying, “No. Nada. Nothing.”

Their spokespersons said there was no yelling. “It was a budget discussion,” said Luna’s Melissa McGrath.

When I asked Brown whether he “got into it” with Luna, he said: “I’ve heard that. I’m sorry, I can’t be more helpful.”

The stakes are high. Luna wants to defeat three referendums on the November ballot that would repeal Students Come First. Luna opponents gathered 220,000 signatures to force a vote, and lawmakers who backed the law are nervous about their hides, too. More pressure comes from the end of $49 million in federal funds, which means that Otter’s recommendation for K-12 spending of $1.537 billion is a 1.5 percent drop in 2012-13.

“I’m happy that Tom wants it because I want it,” Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, said of restoring the salary money. “It’s the best of both worlds: Give them the full amount they got last year, in addition to pay for performance. The people who support reform really want to treat the teachers well and fairly.”

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, is a budget committee member who defends sticking with the reform budget. “The governor funded that just exactly as the law says.”

The committee co-chairs, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, prefer Luna’s idea.

“It would be cleaner to backfill and stay away from that 3 percent bonus,” Bell said.

“Restoring education means filling the hole that was created by Students Come First,” Cameron said.

Brown, the Otter aide, met Tuesday with the floor sponsors of the K-12 budget, Sen. Dean Mortimer and Rep. Jeff Thompson, both Idaho Falls Republicans.

“I called the meeting,” Thompson said. “I think anybody that voted for Students Come First would like to see it backfilled. Teachers are extremely valuable. They are educating the future of our state.”

Thompson said one source of money would be trimming Otter’s call to put $29 million in the public school savings account. “That fills the gap,” he said.

Mortimer said he’s not decided on filling the hole but said there is “political will to get as much money as possible for schools.” He echoed Bell’s concern about a one-time bonus. “Do you take $19 million away and give ’em $25 million? To me, that’s weird accounting.”

Lawmakers who voted for the reforms are spooked. Opponents also want money restored. Together, they likely have the votes.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438

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