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Dietrich senior Cami Hendrix passes the ball over the head of Carey senior Lindsey Morey on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, at Shoshone High School in Shoshone.

Counties want better communication, more funds from state

Jacob Greenberg 

BOISE — A large number of county officials in Idaho want a better working relationship with the state Legislature, a recent report found, and most say they rarely have enough revenue to meet all the obligations the state imposes on them.

Some Magic Valley county commissioners say these are familiar challenges — but in a region that includes counties of varying sizes, demographics, and economies, one report doesn’t fit all.

The study, released this week by the Office of Performance Evaluations, found that nearly six in 10 elected county officials surveyed said they did not think the Legislature did a good job seeking input from counties and a similar percentage did not feel state agencies were sufficiently responsive to counties’ concerns about implementing state mandates.

The report was compiled with input from 400 elected county officials from 37 of Idaho’s 44 counties.

Coming up with the funds to pay for programs and rules required by the state — such as public defense services, jail facilities, and indigent medical care — was county officials’ biggest concern, according to the report, with seven in 10 counties agreeing that state mandates “usually or always lead to financial problems” and that county revenue is “rarely or never adequate.” Rural counties such as Gooding, Camas and Lincoln tend to be hardest hit by financial constraints.

Different aspects of the report resonated with commissioners from Twin Falls, Blaine and Gooding counties, all of whom told the Times-News they recognized familiar struggles in some — but not all — of the findings.

A primary theme of the report was a widespread desire for stronger communication and cooperation between the Legislature and county officials. Commissioner Don Hall described Twin Falls County’s relationship with local lawmakers as “outstanding,” but said he understood others’ frustrations.

“On the whole, I can see where you have got that perspective in that report,” Hall said. “But really, we have a great relationship with our local legislators.”

A finding that resonated more closely with Hall was the struggle of some counties to fund local jails: 65 percent of commissioners surveyed said their counties had trouble providing adequate jail facilities.

“We’re a growing community and we know our population is going to grow,” Hall said. “But some of the policies the state has put together to try to lessen the burden on the prison system, of releasing folks or different ways they deal with folks’ probation, has exacerbated those problems.”

As of Friday there were 237 inmates in the 194-bed jail in Twin Falls County, with an additional 43 Twin Falls inmates housed elsewhere. Crowding in state prisons has also resulted in some state inmates staying at the Twin Falls jail for longer periods of time after their sentencing.

“They understand the challenges there and they’re trying to find some fixes,” Hall said of state lawmakers. “But it’s not a very quick turnaround for those solutions, so we’re still kind of waiting. We’re still suffering with the dynamics of that.”

Commissioner Jacob Greenberg, chairman of the Blaine County commission, similarly reported having a good relationship with his local District 26 legislative delegation. But when it comes to the statehouse as a whole, Greenberg said he has been frustrated by the Legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid in previous years, despite bipartisan urging from a number of county officials from around the state.

“I don’t think they do listen to us, even though you would think the commission is in touch with the constituents a lot more closely than, say, a state legislator,” Greenberg said.

One particular bill in the Legislature this year has caught Greenberg’s attention: legislation from Rep. Chad Christensen, a Republican from Idaho Falls, that would outlaw local bans on handheld cellphone use while driving. Blaine County and two of its cities, Ketchum and Hailey, have implemented such ordinances. When it comes to legislating rules and mandates for counties, Greenberg said, he believes one uniform approach doesn’t always work.

“I think the Legislature tries to be consistent across the whole state,” he said. “Counties are different. They’re not the same across the whole state.”

An aspect of the report that didn’t particularly resonate with Greenberg: the struggle of the majority of counties surveyed to fund state mandates.

“We’re in a pretty good position because we have high property values, so we’re not as constrained as other counties,” Greenberg said.

Gooding County hasn’t been so lucky, Commissioner Mark Bolduc said.

“We’ve talked to [legislators] and I think they listen,” Bolduc said. But “when it comes down to funding what they want us to do, I don’t feel like we’ve got a good communication deal going there.”

Particularly straining for Gooding County is providing adequate public defense, Bolduc said, adding that he’d like to see the state take over public defense in the future. He is hopeful, however, that potential state funding to accompany newly approved caseload limits for public defenders in Idaho could help.

Bolduc said he agreed that state mandates “usually or always lead to financial problems” and that county revenue is “rarely or never adequate.”

“When you’re forced with a 3 percent budget cap in this day and age with everything, and what things cost, how do you do it?” Bolduc said. “There’s no business out there that is expected to survive on a three percent budget increase a year. But yet the counties are.”

Hall estimated that urban Twin Falls probably struggles with funding to a lesser degree than some other Magic Valley counties, though some state mandates implemented without significant funding, such as the introduction of the new Odyssey electronic court filing system, have put strains on the county’s budget.

“We probably fare better than some of the surrounding counties that are rurally based, because at least we have the growth revenue that comes in,” Hall said. “But yeah, we’ve seen challenges with these mandates that start stretching our budgets.”

Steve Helber 

Demonstrators hold signs and chant outside the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. The demonstrators are calling for the resignation of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam after a 30 year old photo of him on his medical school yearbook photo was widely distributed Friday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Russia to pull plug on nuclear arms pact after US does same

MOSCOW — Following in the footsteps of the U.S., Russia will abandon a centerpiece nuclear arms treaty but will only deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles if Washington does so, President Vladimir Putin said Saturday.

President Donald Trump accused Moscow on Friday of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with “impunity” by deploying banned missiles. Trump said in a statement that the U.S. will “move forward” with developing its own military response options to Russia’s new land-based cruise missiles that could target Western Europe.

Moscow has strongly denied any breaches and accused Washington of making false accusations in order to justify its pullout.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in explaining that Washington on Saturday formally suspended its treaty obligations, said in a statement that Russia’s “continued noncompliance has jeopardized the United States’ supreme interests.” He said the treaty will terminate in six months unless Moscow returns to “full and verifiable compliance.”

The collapse of the INF Treaty has raised fears of a repeat of a Cold War showdown in the 1980s, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union both deployed intermediate-range missiles on the continent. Such weapons were seen as particularly destabilizing as they only take a few minutes to reach their targets, leaving no time for decision-makers and raising the likelihood of a global nuclear conflict over a false launch warning.

After the U.S. gave notice of its intention to withdraw, Putin said Russia would do the same. He ordered the development of new land-based intermediate-range weapons, but emphasized that Russia won’t deploy them in the European part of the country or elsewhere unless the U.S. does so.

“We will respond quid pro quo,” Putin said. “Our American partners have announced they were suspending their participation in the treaty, and we will do the same. They have announced they will conduct research and development, and we will act accordingly.”

The U.S. has accused Russia of developing and deploying a cruise missile that violates provisions of the pact that ban production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 310 to 3,410 miles. Trump’s move also reflected his administration’s view that the pact was an obstacle to efforts needed to counter intermediate-range missiles deployed by China, which isn’t part of the treaty.

NATO allies have strongly backed Washington and urged Moscow to save the treaty by returning to compliance.

Russia has rejected the U.S. claims of violation, charging that the missile, which is part of the Iskander-M missile system, has a maximum range of 298 miles. Russian officials claimed the U.S. assertions about the alleged breach of the pact by Moscow were intended to shift the blame for the pact’s demise to Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday released a satellite image of what it described as new production facilities at the U.S. missile maker Raytheon’s plant in Tucson, Arizona, noting that their expansion began in 2017 as the Congress authorized spending for the development of intermediate-range missiles.

“The character and the timing of the works provide an irrefutable proof that the U.S. administration had decided to pull out of the INF treaty years before making unfounded claims of Russian violations,” it said.

Putin has argued it makes no sense for Russia to deploy a ground-based cruise missile violating the treaty because it has such weapons on ships and aircraft, which aren’t banned by the pact.

Speaking Saturday in a televised meeting with his foreign and defense ministers, Putin instructed the military to work on developing new land-based weapons that were previously forbidden by the INF treaty. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin that they would include a land-based version of the Kalibr ship-based cruise missile and a new hypersonic intermediate-range ballistic missile.

Putin emphasized that such new weapons won’t be deployed unless the U.S. does so.

“Russia will not station intermediate-range weapons in Europe or other regions until similar U.S. weapons appear in those regions,” he said.

The Russian leader said Moscow remains open to talks with Washington, but added it would be up to the U.S. to take the first step.

“Let’s wait until our partners are mature enough to conduct an equal and substantive dialogue on those issues,” he said.

At the same time, Putin told his ministers that he would like to review the progress on building other prospective weapons that don’t fall under the INF treaty, including the intercontinental Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and the Poseidon underwater nuclear-powered drone.

He noted Shoigu’s report that a key stage in testing of the Poseidon was completed several days ago. The drone is designed to carry a heavy nuclear weapon that could cause a devastating tsunami wave.

Putin also noted during Saturday’s meeting that he would like the military to prepare a response to the possible deployment of weapons in space.

The Pentagon’s new strategy unveiled last month calls for a new array of space-based sensors and other high-tech systems to more quickly detect and shoot down incoming missiles.

Legislature unveils draft of school funding formula bill

Originally posted on on Jan. 31.BOISE — Following weeks of anticipation, legislators Thursday released a draft version of a bill designed to overhaul Idaho’s public school funding formula.

The 59-page draft — posted online at 5 p.m. Thursday — represents the first attempt to replace Idaho’s attendance-based funding formula with an enrollment-based model.

Legislators are bringing the proposal forward in a slightly unconventional fashion. Sponsors seldom release a draft of a bill before a legislative committee votes to introduce or “print” it. And that vote — the first step in the formal legislative process — appears to be at least a week away.

The House and Senate education committees will hold a joint listening session at 3 p.m. on Feb. 7, a step in getting feedback. The committees are unlikely to take a vote at that time, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer said Thursday afternoon. The “print” hearing will occur at a later date, probably in Senate Education, said Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

What it would do

At the most basic level, the proposed new formula would create a school funding system where the money follows the student. The bill would provide a base amount of funding of $4,294 for every public school student. The formula would also use “weights” to provide additional funding for special education students, English language learners, gifted and talented students, economically disadvantaged students, small schools, large schools and remote schools, as well as wealth adjustment based on property values.

Because the money follows the student, that means for every student that leaves a given school, a base amount of $4,294 would go out the door. For every new student that arrives, a funding base of $4,294 would follow.

Supporters say the overhaul is needed because the existing formula hasn’t been updated in 25 years. The current model doesn’t take into account the modern education landscape, where student mobility, online learning, school choice, dual-credit courses and classroom technology are daily realities.

Critics say that by taking the same amount of money and dividing it up differently, the proposal creates winners and losers — with 36 school districts or charters expecting to see a funding decrease, based the latest spreadsheet simulations.

Any change to the model is important because of the money involved. K-12 public school spending accounts for about 49 percent of Idaho’s general fund spending annually. A funding overhaul would affect every Idaho student, educator, public school employee, parent, grandparent and taxpayer.

How we got here

The Legislature’s Public School Funding Formula Interim Committee developed the proposal with the help of paid consultants from Education Commission of the States.

The interim committee worked on the proposal for three years and voted unanimously to recommend the proposal in November.

Who had a seat at the table?

From there, a group of legislators on the committee formed a subcommittee to translate the recommendation and spreadsheets into a bill.

Those legislators included:

  • Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls.
  • Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian.
  • Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.
  • Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City.
  • Mortimer.
  • House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

Those legislators worked with Brooke Brourman from the Legislative Services Office, the main bill drafter, Horman and Den Hartog said.

Other legislators who assisted with drafting the bill or providing input included:

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise.
  • House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls.
  • House Education Committee Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth.

The drafting subcommittee got to work in December, sometimes meeting in person, in small groups or via conference call, Horman and Den Hartog said.

Along the way, bill drafters also met with State Department of Education Deputy Superintendent for School Finance Tim Hill and State Board of Education Chief Planning and Policy Officer Tracie Bent.

“We really want to make clear this bill is a reflection of the committee’s recommendation, and that was the attempt with first draft,” Horman said. “We’re translating, basically, a mathematical formula into English. The core of that will relate to the formula and weights.”

Den Hartog said she had a few priorities in drafting the bill. They included transitioning from attendance to enrollment, making sure the money follows the student and protecting teacher salaries, and raises granted under the 2015 career ladder law.

“One thing we wanted to do is make sure to take care of those students who are mobile and help those schools and districts receiving students,” Den Hartog said.

Teacher salaries and the career ladder represent a sticking point in the debate. Horman and Den Hartog said bill drafters have made it a priority to preserve the career ladder, even though the proposal calls for running salary money through the formula and giving administrators discretion in how they spend it.

The draft isn’t final, and the career ladder language could be tweaked. Den Hartog said the steps in the career ladder, its separate rungs for residency and professional educators, could be folded into the new formula.

“We’re trying to retain the spirit of that, while recognizing a lot of school districts do things differently than what the actual (salary) allocation (from the state) is,” she said.

After the initial framework came together, Horman and Den Hartog said the bill drafters turned to local school superintendents and business managers to provide assistance and suggestions.

Horman declined to release the names of those school officials, but she estimated she worked with 24 administrators. Den Hartog estimated she met with 20 to 25 officials throughout the drafting process — sometimes over the phone, sometimes face to face.

“Those participants are under no obligation to support the bill, but they have been very gracious with their time and helping us get a draft that accurately reflects the interim committee’s recommendation.”

Division among school leaders

While the legislators are withholding the names of the administrators who helped draft the bill, another group of superintendents has come out publicly with questions and concerns.

Beginning in September, the Southern Idaho Superintendents Conference wrote a letter to the interim committee expressing concerns.

Together, the group represents about 40 percent of all Idaho public school students. Its members include:

  • Mountain Home Superintendent James Gilbert.
  • Boise Superintendent Don Coberly, and incoming superintendent Coby Dennis.
  • Emmett Superintendent Wayne Rush.
  • Vallivue Superintendent Pat Charlton.
  • West Ada Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells.
  • Kuna Superintendent Wendy Johnson.
  • Nampa Superintendent Paula Kellerer.
  • Middleton Superintendent Josh Middleton.
  • Caldwell Superintendent Shalene French.

Eight of those superintendents met with Idaho Education News on Thursday, about four hours before the draft was unveiled (Charlton, Johnson and Rush did not attend). They had not yet read the draft, but said they continue to have numerous concerns based on the interim committee’s final recommendation, the process and the formula spreadsheets.

Among their concerns:

  • They want to preserve the career ladder as it exists today, outside the funding formula.
  • They are concerned about districts that would expect a funding decrease.
  • They find the proposed wealth adjustment confusing, and don’t feel it has been explained or justified.
  • They are worried about the level or transparency throughout the interim committee process, and significant changes between in the formula spreadsheets that said were not fully explained.
  • Given the magnitude of the proposed change, they feel legislators need to slow down, gather more input and wait before moving ahead. Coberly said Gov. Brad Little’s proposed new education task force would be the perfect vehicle to consider the proposal.

The Treasure Valley superintendents say they are not throwing up barriers just for the sake of opposing change. Instead, the details and process concern them.

“Enrollment would help us,” said French, speaking for the Caldwell district. “We’re in favor of looking at enrollment for funding.”

Middleton arrived in Idaho in 2016, coming from a state where all the money was run through “one bucket.” He said he found Idaho’s approach transparent and refreshing, with separate line items carved out for various initiatives, from training to early reading intervention.

“When everything is in one bucket, student learning isn’t at the forefront,” Middleton said.

Gilbert said he’s been very concerned by the process. He said it has been difficult to track the proposal through different iterations of funding spreadsheets and to know who all is involved.

“This feels just like the days of Tom Luna and the secrecy that is behind it,” Gilbert said. “Any process, to be effective, needs to take time and have more stakeholder input. That’s what is missing right now and there is a rush to get this done because it’s been in the (interim) committee for a while and that shouldn’t be the reason for pressing forward like this.”

Middleton agreed.

“We are under such scrutiny when we bring something to our (school) board that has not been reviewed or gotten stakeholder feedback and then asked the board to vote,” Middleton said. “The response is always, ‘What did teachers say or how do parents feel?’ That has not been the case in this process.”

One reason to introduce the draft online before moving forward is to gather input from the field and address concerns or mistakes, Horman and Den Hartog said. Drafters addressed one of the superintendents’ concerns by using an apples-to-apples comparison — building the draft and formula around 2018-19 funding levels and 2018-19 enrollment levels.

Another step was setting up an email account to gather educator feedback. Horman said that resulted in correcting some local data errors that were built into previous spreadsheets.

While Coberly appreciates the opportunities for feedback, he said the burden should not fall to local school officials to analyze the spreadsheets, identify all the errors and then email in to report them.

A starting point

Both Horman and Den Hartog said the draft unveiled Thursday is incomplete and likely to be changed. They view it as a starting point. They said they were still working to finalize calculations, including an experience index they say will be designed to preserve the career ladder and a cost-of-living index.

In order for Idaho to adopt a new funding formula, legislators would need to introduce a bill and pass it into law by winning approval from both education committees, passing it on the Senate and House floors and avoiding Little’s veto stamp.

Even if the bill becomes law, the changes would not take effect during the upcoming school year. Legislators are eyeing the 2020-21 school year to implement the change.

It’s too early to handicap the draft’s chances, but Mortimer has predicted the issue is the biggest education proposal on the table this year and there will be a vigorous debate.

“The Legislature is up to the task, but it will be a large lift — as large as the career ladder, if not more so,” Mortimer said, referencing the 2015 debate over the salary law. Legislators scrapped at least two early versions of that bill before eventually passing it through both the House and Senate with widespread support.