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Idaho schools weather tough budget year

by Jessie L. Bonner
| December 26, 2010 8:00 PM

BOISE - In Idaho Falls, businesses were asked to pay for field trips because the local school district couldn't afford to send students on educational excursions to the museum or zoo.

At a Boise elementary school, the parent-teacher organization asked members to donate ink cartridges, Band-Aids and tissues, no longer raising money for fun extras but basic supplies.

A principal in the eastern Idaho town of Ammon kissed a pig, dyed his hair, wore a dress and rolled in Jell-O as a reward to students for bringing in money through various fundraisers.

These are just some of the lengths to which Idaho's public schools have gone while patching holes in their education budgets, which were reduced by a total of $128 million this year. And a budget plan submitted by the state Department of Education indicates the next fiscal year may bring more of the same.

But public schools chief Tom Luna stresses the budget plan he drafted for next year likely will change in the coming months. It proposes a stark scenario for public schools: another year with $128 million less.

The fallout of decisions made in the 2011 Idaho Legislature, which convenes in January, will likely vary from school district to school district, said Luna, who was elected to another four-year term in November.

"The budget that I propose to the Legislature, I'm sure it's going to look different than what we presented in September," Luna said. "For the last four years, that's been the case."

Luna has already cautioned lawmakers he'll need $60 million in new money to avoid more cuts to a budget that has already been reduced by 7.5 percent this year. His budget plan for next fiscal year, which starts in July, does not include the extra $22 million that schools got from the state land endowment reserve this year.

There's also none of the one-time federal stimulus money that helped prop up previous school budgets.

Luna wants $36 million to replace the temporary funding and another $24 million to cover an estimated 3,500 new students expected to enter the K-12 public school system next year. Altogether, $60 million in new money is needed just to keep per-student spending at current levels, Luna said.

When it comes to how schools will weather the next fiscal year, a key factor will be how they used the $51 million the federal government sent Idaho earlier this year to preserve teaching jobs, Luna said.

"If they saved some or all of it, obviously it's going to be easier for them to get through the next year," Luna said. "But for those districts that spent most or all of it, it's going to be a different story."

The cuts have already made a sizable dent in education programs, according to some teachers and parents.

At Idaho's largest school district in Meridian, Christy Blaser's son lost his science labs and the second-grade class could no longer afford to pass out phonic learning sets, she said.

"If the funds are cut so much, you really start to wonder, are they going to be able to keep providing a quality education for our children?" Blaser said.

The parent-teacher organization used to raise money for extras, like balls for physical education classes. But the group is increasingly leaning on its members to help pay for things like paper, and members have already put money aside to help out during the next school year, Blaser said.

"You just see teachers being stretched too thin," Blaser said. "You want them to be focused on the curriculum instead of worrying about all the extras."

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