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Penny for Their Thoughts 

by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & pponents of greater school funding in Idaho are missing a rare opportunity to create a media campaign using Pink Floyd's frightening admonition: "Hey. Teacher. Leave those kids alone ..."

Yeah, we don't need no education -- especially if we're paying the bill for someone else's kid. That seems to sum up the opposition to the latest effort to bump up public school funding in Idaho.

In a tax-wary state with the most Republican of legislatures, Idaho school funding has always been iffy. And this year's campaign to raise some $200 million for education -- Proposition 1 on the Nov. 7 ballot -- has been sideswiped by summer's grass-roots property tax revolt.

Record numbers of Idahoans appealed skyrocketing property assessments and, as pitchforks and torches were being gathered, Gov. Jim Risch called a special session of the Legislature last month to cut back on property tax increases. Property taxes are the primary source of Idaho school funding.

Legislators agreed to Risch's plan to cover the rollback by raising the state's sales tax by a penny on the dollar -- from 5 percent to 6 percent -- and toss the money into the general fund. Trouble is, teachers and parents around the state had built an entire campaign around a one-percent sales tax boost in order to generate money for schools. Oops.

Craftily, Proposition 1 had a Plan B: "If the Legislature takes the penny for another purpose? They must replace the funding with an alternative source without harming other critical services," backers write in the Idaho Voters Pamphlet.

"Actually, this hasn't really changed the dynamics of our campaign much at all. Proposition 1 came about from a very real need to increase school funding," says Ryan Hill, director of communications for the Proposition 1 campaign. "Eighty-thousand people signed our campaign petition."

Hill cites statistics that are driving Proposition 1: Idaho ranks 49th in the nation on school spending in 2003-04; only a third of Idaho kids go to college -- 44th out of 50 states -- and textbooks and other materials are out-dated or in short supply after decades of stagnant funding.

"What the special session really did for us is raise the profile of school funding much earlier in political cycle," Hill says. "The session was Aug. 26 and the next day 175,000 kids started back to school."

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & D & lt;/span & espite what its name might infer, Idahoans for Excellence in Education opposes Proposition 1: "It would put an additional burden on Idaho's working families by increasing their sales tax by 20 percent," the group claims in the Idaho Voters Pamphlet. Well, math fanatics, that's one way of saying the sales tax would rise by 1 percent -- or by another penny on the dollar.

The sales tax boost is moot now, but Idahoans for Excellence in Education also writes "It is a crying shame the [teachers] union leadership would prostitute Idaho's children for their own gain." Strong language to contend that Proposition 1 is a secret slush fund for teacher pay raises. "It is highly unlikely our children will see a penny of it!" the group writes.

Hill and elementary school teacher Michelle Williams, the North Idaho coordinator for the Yes on Proposition1 campaign, say nothing could be further from the truth.

The Coeur d'Alene School District has cut $2 million after a levy failure last spring, says Williams, who teaches at CDA's Fernan Elementary. Nature outings and other field trips have been chopped. The elementary school cross-country running program has been dropped. Proposition 1 is intended to provide funding for these sorts of losses, she says.

Hill notes that Idaho schools -- often in tough budget straits -- can't cut the heating bills or roof repairs. "The money's got to come from somewhere and when districts come into lean times, the only place to go is the programs budget," Hill says.

Music and art classes are often the first to experience cutbacks. College prep and vocational/technical classes are also seen as optional. Minor sports, classroom aides, field trips and travel are often on the block. Textbook and technology purchases are deferred.

And yes, keeping good teachers lured by better pay in neighboring states is part of Proposition 1, too, he says.

The measure would distribute funds to Idaho school districts based on enrollment. The districts and local school boards have wide latitude in spending the funds -- out of nine areas ranging from materials and supplies to adding classes to routine maintenance.

"Lake Pend Oreille schools don't have the same issues as Coeur d'Alene, and Coeur d'Alene doesn't have the same issues as Wallace or Mullan," Williams says. "What I love about Proposition 1 is that it's local. It's not the state saying there's a big blanket approach and everybody has to do the same thing. I would think, if I were a school board member, I would like that, too."

Adds Hill: "It has a high level of accountability and local control. Coeur d'Alene would get about $6 million in additional funding, and the school board and local stakeholders get to say what's important to spend that money on. When that decision is made, they must report to the public."
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