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Budget writers set $1.3B schools spending plan

John Miller, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Teachers stand to see wages bolstered under a plan approved Monday by legislative budget writers who favored unwinding a 2-year-old freeze on the system that helps set their pay, as well as directing millions to local districts to reward employees who help improve student performance.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee passed the $1.3 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2014, a 2.2 percent increase over last year, on a 15-5 vote.

This budget, which still must be approved by the Legislature, unfreezes Idaho's "steps and lanes" grid system that pays teachers according to years of service and level of education, at a cost of $11.3 million.

It also dedicates up to $21 million for local districts to reward employee achievement, restores about $15 million to base salaries, and hikes first-year teacher minimum pay to $31,000, from $30,500.

The panel's majority rejected a separate plan that left the freeze intact, while giving districts more money to spend at their discretion — provided it didn't go to personnel.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow and a former high school math teacher, said the freeze, enacted in 2011 to save money, has resulted in experienced teachers with master's degrees potentially sacrificing a significant share of their wages, some $9,000 over the past three years, according to her calculations.

"We need to shine a lot on how we compensate our experienced teachers — I think we haven't given them enough," Ringo said. "Still, looking at the two motions, restoring the steps means a great deal."

Foes of this public education budget, by far the largest in Idaho at about 47 percent of state spending, objected to unfreezing the grid system, which some conservatives object to because it pays teachers based on their years in the business, not classroom performance.

Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, also worried this measure was unfair to other state employees whose wages aren't slated for an increase. By Bayer's estimate, state funding for teacher pay would rise 6 percent, under the plan that cleared the committee.

"We're just putting money... where I see too much of a displacement here all at once," he argued.

The failure of the "Students Come First" overhaul at the polls on Nov. 6 unraveled Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's plan to increase merit bonuses to $61 million in 2014, from $38 million paid out in 2013.

On Monday, however, Luna said he was pleased this 2014 budget now includes up to $21 million for teachers and administrators where students meet objective measures of growth in districts with school board-approved achievement plans. Some of the money, up to $8 million, could also be used for professional development for teachers.

"Even when we had pay for performance in place under Students Come First, the districts that submitted their local plans, they were well thought out, they had very good measures," Luna said, following the vote. "We saw some pretty impressive results in many of those school districts."

Luna was also optimistic about the $13.4 million slated for technology upgrades, including $2 million to complete wireless Internet systems in Idaho schools and another $3 million for technology "pilot programs," due to be awarded to local districts in the form of competitive grants.

After voters rejected his $180 million plan to equip Idaho high school students and teachers with laptops, Luna hopes this pilot program helps foster successful technology programs that can eventually be expanded and sustained statewide, while also cultivating the necessary public support.

"One of the things we heard during the 'Students Come First debate, we're spending a lot of money... show us the examples of success," he said. "This is a first step."