Idaho’s Department of Education says the repeal of the Students Come First education laws means a $23 million cut for the state’s schools. It took the department time to come up with that number after voters rejected the laws early this month through ballot propositions 1, 2 and 3. Then school districts had to figure out what it means for their budgets.
For most districts the biggest impact comes with a catchy name; use it or lose it. That’s budget speak for money the state gives districts to hire teachers. If a district doesn’t hire enough teachers it gets less money. That’s how it was before the Students Come First laws and that’s the law again. But for the past year and half districts have been allowed to hire fewer teachers and pocket some of that money.
“We used those dollars to balance the budget,” says Alex Simpson, finance director in Meridian, Idaho’s largest school district. In 2008 Meridian got about $200 million from the state.
“Last year I believe we were at about 160,” Simpson says. “So we’ve cut over $40 million out of the budget.”
Simpson says that use it or lose it money came in handy backfilling a little from those years of cuts. But now it’s headed to a state rainy day fund and not into district accounts. And there’s other money that’s not coming to the districts, like for classroom technology. There is some money the laws took away that now comes back. But altogether Simpson calculates about a $4 million loss for Meridian, or about 2.3 percent of the district’s total budget. Simpson says that won’t be easy for Meridian.
“Tough times for the rest of this year and it’d be a tough year next year,” he says. “You would have to start looking at what you would do to save money, period.”
But not all districts are in the same boat. Mike Chatterton is business manager for the Blaine County School District, home to Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey.
“It’s not going to change any kind of direction that the Blaine County School District is headed,” Chatterton says. “And it won’t have material impact on anything that we’ve got going now.”
Blaine County has more teachers than the state minimum so use it or lose it is not an issue. That’s because Blaine County has levies in place that allow it to get more money from local taxpayers than from the state. Chatterton says his district is fortunate.
“A lot of these state funding cuts over the past several years haven’t had a detrimental impact to us like it has 95 percent of districts in the state,” he says.
Blaine County will lose some technology money but, Chatterton says that’s easily absorbed by district rainy day funds. A few districts are in even better shape when it comes to the repeal. Boise stands to gain more than half a million dollars. But Boise and Blaine are outliers.
Most of the state’s school districts are in the same position as Meridian. But Meridian won’t make any cuts yet. They’re waiting to see what the legislature does in January. Lawmakers could send some or all of the money to districts. Or they could leave it in the rainy day fund where it went after the repeal; a fund that’s been seriously depleted in the last few years.