Idaho K-12 budget boost raises some concerns

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Some Idaho Board of Education members fear a $77 million increase in funding for K-12 schools in 2015 could come at the expense of universities. Both have seen their coffers shrink since the Great Recession.

On Thursday, board member Bill Goesling of Moscow said he worried that the 5.9 percent boost requested by public schools chief Tom Luna would siphon money from the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho State University in Pocatello, Boise State University and Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston.

Starting in 2009, Idaho lawmakers reduced government spending as tax revenue plummeted. For higher education, that meant appropriations dropped from a high of $285 million to $210 million in 2012. The figure has begun rising again, to $236 million for the current fiscal year.

Still, Goesling and other trustees raised concerns at their Thursday meeting that directing too much to K-12 schools could hurt efforts to adequately fund universities.

"We've got to serve higher education," Goesling said. "They're the ones that drive the economy."

Jason Hancock of the superintendent's office says Luna's proposed budget increase was guided by recommendations from a task force formed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter to help improve schools. Altogether, the recommendations released this fall would add more than $250 million to the public school budget over the next six years.

The task force also suggested boosting teacher pay and restoring millions in funding for school operations cut since the recession.

But the task force only focused on measures to improve Idaho's K-12 schools and boost the number of kids who go on to college. Higher education wasn't included in its mandate.

Milford Terrell, a Boise plumbing company owner and longtime education board member, called the scale of Luna's recommendations for K-12 schools "staggering" and suggested they could undercut funding necessary for universities.

"I do believe in the kids and that the kids should have the best education," he said. "However, is this the best use of the money?"

Some defended Luna's efforts to bolster K-12 education, arguing that unlike universities, Idaho's public school system hasn't been able to offset some of the past half-decade's reductions through tuition increases.

Richard Westerberg, a board member from Preston in southeastern Idaho, said that even though Luna's budget proposal seemed robust, it still left overall K-12 funding at levels lower than those of 2009. Luna's 2015 proposal would dedicate $1.37 billion to public schools. The original 2009 appropriation was $1.41 billion.


Information from: Lewiston Tribune