Funding, or the lack thereof, was the hot topic discussed by school administrators and trustees during Thursday’s Idaho School Board Association regional meeting held at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls.

“It was my fifth regional meeting in seven days and the conversation has been the same at every one,” said ISBA Executive Director Karen Echeverria.

Representatives from several Magic Valley school districts attended, and many shared how their districts plan to make do with less money from the state.

For many districts, that means using the emergency declaration made possible by the Legislature to reopen teacher contracts.

Echeverria stressed that districts need to comply with the tight timeline and guidelines in order to successfully take advantage of the emergency status.

“If you aren’t working with an attorney,” she said, “get one.”

Twin Falls School District Superintendent Wiley Dobbs said the district plans to cut its budget by 8.4 percent, and lamented cutting teacher pay, which the district has strived for years to increase.

Increased pay, he said, “Is a good recruitment tool and a good retention tool.”

Superintendent Heather Williams said the Gooding School District faces challenges with declining student enrollment and is having a hard time pinpointing how much funding to expect.

Districts explored other ways to make up for budget shortfalls, including supplemental levies and moving to a pay-to-participate system for extracurricular student activities.

Williams said the Gooding district found the “miniscule” $25,000 annual savings didn’t make up for the number of students who gave up sports and activities.

“We went away from (pay-to-play), as we found that the kids that need to participate — those at a higher risk of dropping out — just wouldn’t come out. Kids were making payments to play football. It wasn’t good,” Williams said.

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke,R-Oakley, will likely take what he heard at Thursday’s meeting to Boise next January.

School administrators are reluctant to cut services, pay and time students spend in the classroom, but legislators were just as reluctant in cutting the education budget, Bedke said.

“I don’t know exactly what to do here … I don’t have a lot of answers,” Bedke said. “If present trends continue, we’ve got some bumps ahead.”

He said the Legislature took a “leap of faith,” in setting the budget, with hopes that tax revenue would meet or exceed forecasts.

If tax revenues continue to fall below expectations, the state will have no option but to pull money out of education coffers to balance the budget, per Idaho’s constitutional mandate.

If that happens, there will likely be additional holdbacks, Bedke said.

Blair Koch may be reached at blairkoch@gmail.com or 316-2607.

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