Christmas came a few weeks early for Idaho Department of Education employees this year: Outgoing state Superintendent Marilyn Howard awarded a total of $120,098 in merit bonuses to 135 members of her 140-person staff—$960 for each full-time employee, a bit less for the part-timers.
But the bonuses have left some state officials smarting over the timing.
While nothing Ms. Howard did was illegal or improper, “the thing that stings about this is the timing of it and the distribution,” said Brad Foltman, the budget chief for Gov. James E. Risch. “Regardless of job class and pay level, everyone got the same amount. Some would say that is not a merit-based plan.”
Ms. Howard’s actions even caused the governor to place a hold on departmentwide bonuses for state employees until the legislature reconvenes Jan. 8 and can make a decision on the issue.
“It’s not that he disagrees with the bonuses,” said Jeff Storti, a spokesman for the Republican governor. “He just wants to make sure there’s an administrative budget to get through January.”’
“Just giving a blanket bonus to everyone in the agency seems a little dangerous,” Mr. Storti added.
And severalmembers of the Idaho legislature have objected, saying that by giving out the bonuses so shortly before leaving her elected office, Ms. Howard—a Democrat—seems to slight her successor, Tom Luna, a Republican.
“Why would you deserve a bonus because your boss is retiring?” Rep. Maxine Bell, a Republican, told the Idaho Statesman this month.
This year’s bonus money came from salary savings after one employee took unpaid leave and several positions went unfilled, said education department spokeswoman Jennifer Oxley. She said that Ms. Howard has given out bonuses to employees for the past two years, with no backlash.
Ms. Oxley also said that the bonuses were Ms. Howard’s way of recognizing the job her staff has done in a difficult year for the department. Ms. Howard missed a lot of time after being diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, and Deputy Superintendent Jana Jones also spent time out of the office.
“We’ve really been working hard without our top two leaders,” Ms. Oxley said.
A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week