Published Online: June 1, 2009

At Least 12 Idaho Districts Declare Emergencies

A dozen Idaho school districts are taking advantage of a new state law that allows them to cut teacher pay, hours and contract length after declaring a financial emergency.

After such a declaration, districts can reopen teacher contracts. The 2009 law temporarily suspends the requirement that teachers earn at least what they were paid in the previous year.

Among districts declaring emergencies are the West Bonner and Boundary County districts in northern Idaho and the New Plymouth School District in southwestern Idaho. In early May, School District 25, which serves about 12,000 students in Pocatello and Chubbuck, declared an emergency to help it mitigate an estimated $3 million shortfall next year.

In addition, schools officials in Coeur d'Alene and Rathdrum say they may make similar declarations.

School districts are struggling to make ends meet after legislators cut the state's share of the public schools budget by 7.7 percent for the fiscal year starting in July. Even with money from the federal stimulus package, total funding only rose 0.4 percent to $1.4 billion.

In New Plymouth, the district has completed the process, resulting in every employee taking three furlough days to save $75,000. With the federal stimulus money the district stands to receive, superintendent Ryan Kerby hopes the austerity measures will be just enough to plug the district's budget gap.

"There's no money, so what can you do?" Kerby told the Spokesman-Review.

Some Idaho district officials say they've been forced to declare emergencies even after previously trimming their spending, including by not filling positions.<

For instance, in Bonner County, West Bonner Schools Superintendent Mike McGuire has cut about $250,000 from his budget through measures such as not hiring an assistant high school principal. On Tuesday, McGuire's district will ask voters to approve a $478,719 tax levy, in part to avoid going to a four-day week.

Even if the levy passes, however, the district still will need to make cuts in teacher pay or workdays to balance its budget.

"We've made, I think, some pretty serious reductions throughout the district," McGuire said. "We just don't have anyplace else to look."

Districts like Boundary County, which went to a four-day school week several years ago to save money, are in even tougher straits.

Superintendent Don Bartling expects a nearly $500,000 drop in state funding next year — on top of money the district will lose because its enrollment is due to shrink by 43 students. The district already has cut 4.75 full-time teachers from its staff of about 100.

"It'll result in larger classes," Bartling said.

Some districts say they were on the edge of declaring a financial emergency, but have for now stepped away from the brink.

For instance, in Coeur d'Alene, Superintendent Hazel Baumann said her district could just skirt such measures by working together with the local union.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has cautioned districts the 2009 law likely won't allow emergencies to be declared two years in a row, unless there are further state funding cuts. As a result, Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said some districts have held off declaring emergencies this year, so they could do so in 2011, if the economy sours further.

"They're hoping the economy turns, but if it doesn't, they want to be able to declare that emergency in the following year," Echeverria said.

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