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Hannah Furfaro reports:  The Senate Education Committee agreed Monday to introduce three revised bills aimed at giving Idaho school boards authority to reduce teacher salaries and more bargaining leverage during contract talks with the teachers union.

The three measures mirror versions introduced in the same committee last month. They were submitted again Monday to reflect changes brought about by six hours of negotiations between school board officials, the teachers union, lawmakers and other education stakeholders.

The bills, being pushed by the Idaho School Boards Association, would change the nature of negotiations that occur each year on so-called master contracts – the broad agreements that cover salaries and benefits, as well as issues such as length of school year and teacher duties outside the classroom.

Karen Echeverria, ISBA executive director, said the version introduced Monday would allow for two-year extensions on master agreements dealing with non-salary issues. Salaries and benefits, she said, would be negotiated annually. Not everything in the revised bills has the support of the Idaho Education Association.

“We knew there were going to be issues we simply were not going to be able to agree upon,” Echeverria said of the talks. “I had really hoped we had more of a consensus.”

The other two bills introduced Monday would:

– Give school boards authority to make across-the-board cuts in teacher salaries, in direct challenge to a 1963 law that prohibits pay cuts for public school teachers. Echeverria said changes were made to soften concerns that a district would reduce a single teacher’s salary in an attempt to force that teacher out.

– Keep school boards from placing teachers on no more than 60 days of unpaid leave if they are under internal investigation by their school district.

The new bills earned praise and criticism from teachers, administrators, parents and school board members during a two-hour public hearing held by the House and Senate education committees. Some of the foes criticized the school boards for bringing back contract statutes that were approved in 2011 as part of the Students Come First overhaul but ultimately repealed at the ballot box last November.

More than 250 people filled the Capitol Auditorium, the second of two forums dedicated to gathering input from the public on education reform legislation, and a hundred more filled seats in committee rooms across the hall to watch the hearing on video screens.

But lawmakers were also urged to consider greater funding for charter schools, classroom sizes and teacher effectiveness.

Several school principals testified that years of budget cuts have led to personnel cuts and a resulting increase in class sizes.

Eagle High School teacher Gail Chumbley said her class sizes have increased since 2008, leaving her with a sense of hopelessness. She encouraged legislators to keep good will and have a sense of common purpose at the forefront when debating education funding this year.

“(Cuts have) prohibited my ability to maintain my standards of excellence,” said Chumbley, who added she plans to retire at the end of the school year. “I can’t do what I know is needed, and I cannot lower my standards in my classes.”

Some who testified urged legislators to give school districts more local control over their finances.

Scott Rogers, superintendent in the Minidoka County School District, said his district has absorbed increasing insurance and utility costs over the last several years. He said a reduction in teaching staff and higher operating costs are increasing class sizes and forcing tough choices on programing.

“I’m no farmer,” he said, “but I do know if you starve a pig, it will die.”

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