- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho’s public schools are on track to receive a 7.4 percent budget increase under a plan from the Legislature’s budget-setting committee.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a 6.8 percent boost - about $100.3 million - for public schools on Monday morning. But some components of the K-12 budget plan are still working their way through the House and Senate, and committee members said they expect those bills will bring the total public education budget to a 7.4 percent increase over the previous year.

That end figure would be slightly less than the amounts requested by both Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and State Schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra but it’s the same percentage hike as approved by lawmakers last year. Ybarra asked for 7.6 percent, including money to fund rural education centers around the state that would help small school districts, and Otter recommended a 7.9 percent budget increase.

The legislation still in the pipeline would add a $10.7 million program to promote early literacy for children and $1 million for leadership awards for teachers. The rural education center plan, meanwhile, has been put on hold for this year so lawmakers can find out more and work with Ybarra to “develop details” that will make the committee feel comfortable funding the line item program, said Rep. Wendy Horman.

The K-12 budget supports about 294,000 students across the state, and the state is experiencing a “trend of growth,” with student enrollment exceeding predictions for the past couple of years, said Paul Headlee, the deputy division manager for the legislative services office budget staff.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, a Democrat from Moscow, Idaho, asked his fellow committee members to double the discretionary funding for school districts to a total of $10 million. He said lawmakers have dramatically increased the statutory requirements placed on schools in recent years, with two dozen such requirements in place today compared to just a handful a decade ago. Meanwhile, Schmidt said, discretionary funding hasn’t grown.

“I’m trying to focus on letting some control go back to the local folks,” Schmidt said. “It’s not a big step here, $5 million bucks.”

The committee didn’t Schmidt’s proposal, though, instead keeping discretionary funding at $5 million. That level of funding brings the discretionary fund budget in line with what it was in 2009, before the economic downturn forced major budget cuts across the state.

The public schools budget also includes funding for the second year of the teacher career ladder program, which is designed to steadily boost teacher pay with hopes of keeping experienced teachers in Idaho. School staffers and administrators, who aren’t included in the career ladder program, will also see a 3 percent increase in salary funding under the new budget.

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