What did the State of Idaho do to our Schools?
By 06/26/2002 13:34:00
On June 12th, Senator Shawn Keough and Representatives George Eskridge and John Campbell attended the Lake Pend Oreille School District's budget hearing to set the record straight about how state funding is impacting local education. Senator Keough, at our request, provided the written text of her speech for publication.
We are here tonight because we care about our schools. For those of you Board members that don’t know me, I live right around the corner, my husband Mike has taught for 26 years in this district and my children attended this school (Kootenai) with one going next year to Stidwell and one going to the middle school.
I’m here this evening because as I read the newspapers, listened to the radio, and watched the video tape of the school board meeting in Clark Fork, I became increasingly concerned about the mis-information that was being presented about the actions of the Legislature this past legislative session and the impacts on our schools.
As a member of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee - the budget committee- I felt compelled to attempt to set the public record straight. We have many difficult decisions facing us and it is important, as we move forward, to start from the same page. I will take the heat for the decisions our budget committee made, but only that heat. Not the heat of other decisions not made at the Legislature.
Although I have concerns as a parent, as the wife of an educator, and as a patron, and I wonder why it appears we are budgeting to spend about twice as much on custodians (no offense intended) than on students with special needs or utilizing the money instead to keep teachers in the classroom, I will focus my remarks on the actions of the Legislature.
The Governor in his state of the state address quoted Thomas Paine, "These are the times that try men’s souls."
How true this statement reflects what faced us this legislative session, what faces us in our economy across the state and the nation, and what faces us here tonight as a community.
Forty-three states are facing revenue shortfalls, hold-backs, and budget cuts. Government runs on money that comes from the work and success of all of us, of our labor, of the property we own and the things we buy. In Idaho, we haven’t seen an economy like this since the early eighties. And we are not alone.
Some blame the tax cuts granted the session prior to this last one for Idaho’s economic condition. That is not the case. Many of those tax cuts were one time, and when you look at the figures, the tax cuts make up only 1/3 of our budget shortfall.
When we finished our work on the budget in February 2001 and the Legislature approved it as we adjourned that March, with the tax cuts figured in, we balanced our budget with a $64 million dollar cushion - money left on the table.
That was before the nation began its descent into a recession and before the tragic events of September 11th. Still, Idaho is in better shape than most other states.
The $300 million dollar surplus that we projected at the end of the 2001 session never materialized.
July was $14.9 million dollars below projections. August was when the Governor announced the first hold-back.
September was $2.3 million dollars down and tragedy like we never imagined hit our country. October we were down $200,000. November the Governor ordered the second hold-back which ultimately was held in place on K-12 public schools at 2% and all other state agencies at 4%. Revenue/tax collections were down another $9.2 million. December was down $20.3 million. January was down $16 million. February was down $10.3 million. March was down. April was down $60 million and it looks as though May is down another $13 million. We still have June to go in this year and it's not looking good either.
I had pledged in December that I would try to hold the Public Schools harmless from the hold-back by using the Rainy Day fund, the Capitol restoration fund and the tobacco receipts for this year.
We used all three of those sources just to keep the budget at the level after the hold-backs and to not cut further into this year’s budget. In other words, we used those sources of dollars I and others had hoped to use to keep the Public Schools from the original hold-back just to keep us functioning without further hold-backs in this budget year. All these sources of dollars were one-time dollars - once spent they are gone.
Setting next year’s budget - the 2003 budget- in this climate was a difficult challenge. We placed a priority on K-12 public schools. This claim is substantiated by the numbers. If you look (and the numbers are posted on the Internet) you will clearly see that K-12 education was placed as a priority. We did not "balance the budget on the backs of our children." K-12 received about a 1% increase in General Fund dollars over the money that will actually be received this year when other state agencies saw their budgets cut 5%, 10%, 35%, some even 100%. Clearly, we did not balance the budget on the back of kids - we placed K-12 education as our highest priority.
Because the three school districts in our legislative district were among the dozen out of 113 that have no reserve or contingency funds, they are the most impacted by the hold-backs and I and my colleagues actively worked to minimize the damage and provide some flexibility. We were successful on two fronts: special education funding and flexibility in budgets between fiscal years to allow for tough issues to be resolved here at the local level in this budgeting process for next year’s budget. Painful as this is and will be, I’m certain that you and I would rather discuss and make these decisions here, and not have them made for us in Boise.
In spite of the challenges it is important to remember the positives: The state funds an average of 75% of public schools M&O. Here in this district it is about 58% from the state, 36.7% raised locally and approximately 5% from the feds and other sources. From 1992 to 2000 we’ve increased funding 91% for K-12 and 83% for higher-ed and our college tuition is second lowest in the west. The state of Idaho spends the highest portion of its general revenues on public education of all the 50 states and during the past five years we have supplied the 5th highest increase in teachers salaries nationally. Our funding record is better than the public is being lead to believe.
And this in a climate where 10,000 Idahoans have lost their jobs and the state has set a new record for unemployment check mailings. This at a time, when our friends and neighbors are losing their jobs because of the downturn in the economy - Coldwater Creek as just one example - and when businesses across our community are struggling to make ends meet. This at a time that Idahoans are just taking themselves out of the workforce - not even applying for benefits - giving up hope of having a job. We don’t even see these people in the stats any more, but we do see them in the neighborhood, or in line at the Food Bank, our local churches and our social service providers.
Ultimately public education will see a 2.7% increase in funding (from all fund sources) while other agencies will see the higher percentage decreases I mentioned before with an overall, or average, decrease of 1% across the board.
So here we are this evening. The difficulty here, as elsewhere, is that our state budgeting process, much like the school budgeting process, is based on just that, a budget - a look into the crystal ball of the future - a guess at how much money you will have and how many people you need to serve and at what level the service is demanded. The challenge for our district was that we, the Legislature, said last March that we thought we were going to send $933 million dollars to schools across Idaho. Then the bottom fell out and the towers blew up and we will only send $909 million. While an increase from the $873 million dollars we sent in 2001, many school districts were caught, especially those like ours with no reserves and costs higher than the state reimburses for, like our salary schedules in which we pay more than the state sends and employ more than the base set in Boise.
The first hold-back was announced in August. The second in November. Many districts had room or made hard decisions then to cancel book orders, and other items that saved them.
Much will be debated about what we should have done both here and in Boise with all of it for 2001-2002 in hindsight, which is always 20-20. This coming year, which starts July 1st, state agencies are being told to be prudent and to anticipate hold-backs again and to plan next year’s, the 2004, budget with 5% and 10% more in potential cuts. Some are planning in 2% cut increments. Discussion is circulating about an increase in sales taxes and some other revenue generating ideas. Discussion is also happening on where cuts in government can be made. I can’t stand before you today and say with certainty that we will be able to deliver the money we budgeted to send this year. Our crystal ball is a bit foggy. Some of the analysts say we will see growth soon, others aren’t as optimistic. We simply won’t know that until, at the earliest, August or September.
We are now here where “local control” meets the test or rather, the rubber meets the road. We have some difficult discussions and priority setting in front of us. But the good news - we get to make those decisions here.
As a fellow elected official - I understand the challenge of setting a budget, trying to determine what the true financial picture is and will be, trying to accommodate as many needs as possible, but recognizing that - just as we do with our own checkbooks and home budgets - that when times are tough, like what we face now, we have to live within our means and plan for what is absolutely necessary, we have to set priorities.
As a fellow elected official, I know that we are not always seen as the best source of information, or as an accurate or believable source. You, as elected school board members, as the individuals responsible by law for the budget setting process, the budget and its ultimate implementation, you, as the elected officials responsible by law for oversight and management of every function in the school district, know this. Your job, your service actually, is an awesome responsibility, and I imagine, more often than not, particularly in times like these - fairly thankless.
Collectively at this moment we are getting questions. Questions like: whose numbers are right, are we getting what you say or what he says from Boise, what accounts can we work with, can we pay that person from there or shouldn’t we pay from over here, where is the money from the emergency levy passed in September, where is the money from the new levy, why are we cutting teachers but not administrators or custodians? One tool you, I and the community have available to us to help us sort through the numbers, the questions and the issues, a tool that can provide a knowledgeable, but detached, third party perspective, is the State Department of Education. Their staff, like your staff, and our JFAC staff, works on this stuff day in and day out. Plus, they have the added knowledge of working with all 113 districts and know the budgets, the rules and the laws inside out. Dr. Marilyn Howard has offered to send two of her top deputies to help us roll up our collective sleeves, answer the technical questions and help us with the tools we need to keep this district moving forward in a positive manner. Additionally, budget staff from the Governor’s Office, the JFAC office are on call and perhaps the School Board Association would be of assistance too.
I stand ready to help too, as do Rep. Eskridge and Rep. Campbell. I also stand ready to help as a parent, a wife of an educator, and a patron who cares deeply and passionately about the education of our children along side of many others who do too.