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Adam Cotterell reports:  This week we’ve been following a new lawsuit that alleges Idaho is not meeting its constitutional duty to adequately fund schools. Also this week Governor Butch Otter turned heads when he was asked if the state was living up to the constitution in that area.

“I would say probably not, but we’re doing the best job that we can,” Otter responded.

Idaho’s constitution requires maintenance of a “general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” And it gives that job to the legislature. That’s lawmakers like Republican Senator Shawn Keough of Sandpoint, vice chair of the finance committee. Keough says education funding is important to her. We asked her if the legislature is doing its job for schools.

“I’m not one that says you gotta have X amount of money per student and that makes it OK,” Keough explained. “I used to think it was black and white, and I don’t think that anymore. So, I don’t know the answer.”

Keough says defining terms like thorough would go a long way to finding the answer. Every time this issue comes up the words of the constitution are scrutinized and debated. And it has come up before.

In 2005 Idaho’s Supreme Court ruled the legislature didn’t pass muster funding safe buildings. We’ve heard from people this week who say lawmakers haven’t fixed that problem. But senate education chair John Goedde, a Republican from Coeur d’Alene, says they’ve made a lot of progress helping local districts replace old buildings.

“Interest forgiveness and even partial principle forgiveness for example.” Goedde says. But he adds Idaho is developing another constitutional funding problem.

“We have allowed districts to supplement what the state is paying them for programs,” he says. “So we’re creating inequity between those that can pass levies and those that can’t.”  

In 2006 lawmakers changed the funding structure for schools. They switched it from a property tax to a sales tax and dropped a program to send more money to poor districts. Mike Ferguson with the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy says, since then districts have dramatically increased local tax levies. To show why that’s a problem Ferguson compares two districts, McCall-Donnelly and Snake River near Blackfoot.

“The variation in their funding capacity is 30 to one,” Ferguson says. “That means it would take thirty times more levying to raise the same amount of revenue in the Snake River District as can be raised in the McCall-Donnelly District.”

So McCall-Donnelly has more than twice as much money to spend per student than Snake River because of a modest levy.

Senator John Goedde says he doesn’t know how to fix these inequities because the constitution also requires a balanced budget and the legislature only has so much money to go around. 

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