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Examining the pieces

A definition of dismantle: “1: to take to pieces ; also : to destroy the integrity or functioning of; 2: to strip of dress or covering : divest; 3: to strip of furniture and equipment.”

Used in a sentence, in an editorial in today’s Idaho Statesman: “Gov. Butch Otter wants to preside over a dismantling of Idaho public schools. There is no subtle way to say it. And there is no way Idahoans should accept it. Otter’s K-12 plan – using the word loosely – calls for cutting 5 percent from the schools’ budget for teachers and staff. This will mean fewer class days, fewer teachers in the schools, and more children crammed into classes.”

Is that a dismantling, though, and does Otter want to preside over it? Does a 5% budget cut – serious as it is, and it is serious – amount to a deconstruction of the system? We’d probably suggest a little more generosity than the Statesman has, recognizing the difficulty of the financial situation and Otter’s limited options.

And they are more limited than many people may realize. From Otter’s rebuttal to the editorial (and other critiques): “The reality is that I have some discretion – with legislative concurrence – over the use of less than $45 million of the $1.2 billion that is available to Idaho. That amounts to about 3.6 percent of the total. Given those limitations, all I am proposing to do is what people on Main Streets and in families all over Idaho are doing – tightening their belts. The people we serve are doing it; state government must not be exempt.”

That last gives us a sharp spin of its own, though. This year’s economic crisis has to do more with a lack of spending – a freezing up of money that usually flows through the economy – than it does with profligacy; over-indebtedness may have gotten us into much of this mess, but the problem now is that people aren’t spending. There’s never an excuse for waste, but “belt-tightening”, whether governmental or otherwise, isn’t the recipe for renewal at the moment.

This whole debate, which has been going on (in Boise as elsewhere) more quietly for some time but seems to have erupted today (in Boise), with the editorial, the governor’s rebuttal, and other commentary. In Idaho, the key debate seems to revolve around the honeypot: The state’s rainy day fund, which Otter is loathe to use (recognizing that the economic downturn may last into another budget cycle) and others are suggesting be used to at least some greater extent. The idea of finding new revenue to help bridge the gap appears to be off the table.

There isn’t any ideal, perfect answer here. But what might be useful, as the legislature ponders all this, is bringing together a few more pieces of information.

One, as the Statesman editorial suggests, might be to pose the question – what to do about the school funds? – to the advisory committee Otter brought together (three former governors among them) to consider what to do with the discretionary $44.8 million in stimulus money. The Statesman: “So did Otter really need to assemble three former governors and five former state budget directors to come up with such a boilerplate plan [as he released]? Were these intelligent folks assembled for counsel – or for political cover?” At the moment, it seems a fair question; their take on school funding might give their usefulness better reign.

A second is consideration of the on-the-ground, in-the-classroom realities of what various decisions entail. The norm in state legislatures (not just Idaho’s) is that massive school funding appropriations are determined with little real idea of what difference 20 or 50 million, or whatever order of magnitude is involved, will really mean to a classroom. That kind of detail ought to be gathered up, and presented to the legislature, and to the governor. The Boise School District this week reported that it plans to cut 122 jobs, apparently most or all teaching positions. That’s specific; now tell us, what would happen under various budget scenarios?

A third is a good at the school districts and their pay levels. Is it right or wrong to argue to exempt out teachers from the various cuts? No less significant: What about money going for overhead, for central administrative offices and the like? What money might be saved, or efficiencies found, through a hard look at district consolidation?

And a fourth: Where are schools on the priority list? Some of the money Otter is proposing for other uses could go to schools; his reticence (to read his statement on the subject) may come from the idea that one-time stimulus money shouldn’t be spent on ongoing expenses, as most school expenses are. That seems a little narrow, though; school budgets can be rejiggered in many kinds of ways. Some of this really gets down to the question of how important you think public education is. (That’s not intended as a rhetorical absolute: Government has quite a few responsibilities, and education, key as it is, still is just one of them.)

Pursuit of answers to questions like these (among others) would justify the longer session that seems to show no sign of shortening. But the debate seems fairly commenced.

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