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Bliss High School

Bliss School is pictured in 2014. 

TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley school district superintendents say they’re unhappy about having winners and losers under a proposed new funding formula.

Superintendents have met to look at the funding formula proposal, said Dale Layne, superintendent of the Jerome School District. Local superintendents say the concept behind the new funding formula is a good one — basing funding on enrollment instead of average daily attendance — but when one school district gains money, it’s because another one is losing out.

“Anytime you make a change, there tend to be winners or losers,” Layne said. “I know in our region, we’ve talked that nobody wants to see another district be the loser.”

The Public School Funding Formula Interim Committee has been working for almost three years to come up with a new formula that will determine how Idaho’s public kindergarten through 12th-grade schools get state money. The latest draft was released last month. Now, the proposal heads to the state Legislature during the 2019 session, which begins in January.

Across Idaho, 36 school districts — including Bliss, Kimberly, Blaine County and Camas County — could see a drop in funding under the new formula. But school districts would be held “harmless” for three years during the transitional period, meaning they wouldn’t see a decline in funding until after that.

Rural school districts can’t afford to lose money, Layne said, adding all children in Idaho need to be taken care of.

Layne said he doesn’t think anyone fully understands the formula yet. But he said the state committee has done a nice job of trying to be transparent, willing to take input and considering different factors.

Part of the problem is current funding numbers won’t be correct later, he said, as school district enrollment and other factors change. The estimated impact for individual school districts is also based on the current level of state funding and assumes no new money will be added.

Complicating matters, school districts’ annual increase in funding would be capped at a 7.5 percent, meaning some districts won’t collect all of the additional funding they are eligible for under the new formula.

North Valley Academy, for example, would receive less than half the amount it is eligible for under the new formula. The cap would restrict the Gooding charter school’s additional funding from $276,450 — a 15.47 percent change — to about $138,000.

Jerome School District would be eligible for an additional $2.212 million — a 10.04 percent change — but would receive about $1.6 million after a 7.5 percent cap.

The biggest gain would be in the Twin Falls School District, which would be eligible for an additional $3.885 million — a 7.56 percent change — and would receive nearly all of that amount.

Currently, Idaho’s public school districts are funded based on average daily attendance: how many students show up to school. The new formula is based on how many students are enrolled, plus additional funding based on factors like school size, and the number of special education and English language learner students.

Under the new formula, some schools would lose money.

Bliss School Superintendent Kevin Lancaster said he has spent about a month dealing with the potential impact of the new funding formula. Lancaster’s 150 students could suffer the biggest loss: $95,036.

The amount of money the school district could lose, however, is down from more than $400,000 in previous drafts of the formula, Lancaster said.

He has talked with state legislators, Idaho State Board of Education officials and other school district superintendents across Idaho. Now, with a possible loss of about $95,000, “while that is still a major loss for me, it’s still better than it was,” Lancaster said. He said he’s hopeful and has faith the state won’t do anything to harm school districts. “I think somebody is going to come to our rescue.”

He said he’d like the “hold harmless” clause to be permanent — not just for three years.

It’s frustrating, Lancaster said, when he sees school districts around him that could gain hundreds of thousands of dollars “and I’m hoping to stay even.”

In Bliss, there’s only one place to cut $95,000: from employee salaries. “The only thing you could do is reduce your number of staff, which would raise the number of students per teacher,” and result in combined grade level classes, he said.

There’s been a big push over the last 25 years in Bliss to have one class per grade level, he said. “It’s been great for these kids out here. We hope to continue to do that.”

If that’s not possible, the school would leave positions vacant when teachers retire, Lancaster said.

Across Idaho, educators have been asking for a new funding formula for a long time, said Brady Dickinson, superintendent of the Twin Falls School District. “We’re really appreciative that the Legislature is tackling the issue.”

Dickenson said he likes the idea of moving from an attendance- to enrollment-based model. “I think the concept is a good one. In that sense, I’m very supportive.”

The current funding formula is complicated, Dickinson said. Plus, the cost of operating a school is the basically the same regardless of how many students show up on a daily basis, he said.

The Twin Falls School District would gain funding under the new formula. “Obviously, that’s a positive thing for our district,” he said. But “we recognize that when we’re gaining money, other districts are losing money.”

While additional funding would go a long way, he said, “I don’t think it’s right to do that at the expense of our rural schools.”

Dickinson said he thinks the Legislature will need to look at infusing new money into the funding formula in order to avoid school districts losing money.

Twin Falls will gain additional funds based largely on the high percentage of students living in poverty and the number of English language learners.

The school district would likely use the money to offset the cost of educating special education students, Dickinson said. The number of students has grown and there are more who have more severe needs.

Also, special education caseloads at some Twin Falls elementary schools are large, Dickinson said, and additional funding would allow for hiring more support staff.

In Jerome, the school district could make a substantial gain.

“It’s really hard to estimate,” Layne said. “There’s a lot of moving parts to it still.”

Similar to Twin Falls, two factors can help explain the funding increase: the number of students learning English and those who are living in poverty.

The Jerome School District would likely use additional state money to focus on special education and students who are learning English.

“The bottom line — the way it’s looking —Jerome would probably be one of the winners,” Layne said. “Of course, any of these things could change.”

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