Idaho Teachers to Get Bonuses Even if Law is Repealed

Idaho teachers who earned merit-pay bonuses last year under a controversial school-reform law will get those payments this fall, regardless of the outcome of a Nov. 6 vote on whether to repeal the law.
by | September 24, 2012

It turns out both sides were wrong: Idaho teachers who earned merit-pay bonuses last year under a controversial school-reform law will get those payments this fall, regardless of the outcome of a Nov. 6 vote on whether to repeal the law.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, the author of the laws, has been saying his department would have no legal authority to send out the payment if voters turn down the referendum on the law. And the Idaho Education Association, the state's teachers union, has been accusing Luna of holding the bonus payment hostage to try to pressure teachers to back the law, or lose bonuses they've already earned.

The question revolved around timing. Luna said state law required him to wait until the Nov. 15 payment from the state to school districts to distribute the bonuses earned last year.

However, a 2012 amendment to the "Students Come First" reform law, SB 1329, changed the law to require that the bonuses go out "by no later than" the third annual payment to school districts, which goes out Nov. 15, rather than requiring that they be "made as part of" that payment.

Still, the state Department of Education maintained that timelines, including an appeal period for school districts, would prevent the payment from being sent out earlier.

IEA President Penni Cyr, in a letter to Luna last week, urged him to send out the bonus payments before the election. "The money that was appropriated for teacher compensation should in fact be distributed as such, and should not be held until after the election," Cyr wrote.

It turns out it doesn't matter. That's because even if voters decide on Nov. 6 to repeal the law, the move doesn't take effect until the election results are certified by the state Board of Canvassers and the governor issues a proclamation -- both of which are scheduled to occur on Nov. 21.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said the Board of Canvassers, which consists of himself, the state controller, and the state treasurer, is scheduled to meet Nov. 21, after receiving reports from county boards of canvassers. "I think everybody was wondering that," Ysursa said. "We would prepare this proclamation for the governor to sign, and it's prepared for the same day."

That means regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 6 vote, the bonus payments would go out, because on Nov. 15, the final day to send them out, the merit-pay law still would be in effect.

Melissa McGrath, state Department of Education spokeswoman, who earlier said the referendum was "the only reason why these bonuses couldn't be paid," said Thursday, "We're going to put it in the Nov. 15 payment as long as we're able to. We've been working to try and do everything we can to make sure these bonuses go out."

Brian Cronin, a retiring state lawmaker who strongly opposed the laws and now is a consultant for the referendum campaign, said, "That's happy news. So we would expect that the department would acknowledge their error and this political football that's now lost all its air will become a non-issue. ... Now voters can really focus on the real issues of this campaign, whether this plan actually makes any sense."

The school reform laws, which Luna dubbed "Students Come First," have three parts: They roll back most collective bargaining rights for teachers; institute a merit-pay bonus program; and call for phasing in a laptop computer for every high school student, other technology boosts, and a new focus on online learning, while shifting priorities within Idaho's existing public school budget to make the new tech and merit-pay programs top priority for funding.

Opponents collected more than 70,000 signatures to place the three laws on the ballot for a possible voter repeal. If voters vote "yes" on Propositions 1, 2 and 3, they support keeping the reform laws; if they vote "no," they support repeal.

Ysursa said all the questions about the timing likely are arising because Idaho's law really was written with initiatives in mind, which are citizen-initiated laws, rather than referenda, which are citizen-initiated votes on whether or not to accept laws passed by the Legislature. Referenda are rare; there only have been four others in the state's history.

Typically, the filing of a referendum would "suspend it from ever going into operation," until after the voters have had their say, Ysursa explained. But under Idaho Supreme Court precedent, an emergency clause trumps that, allowing a referendum to take effect in the meantime, and then be either upheld or repealed.

After opponents began gathering signatures for the referenda, lawmakers backing the reform laws pushed through follow-up bills adding emergency clauses to all three laws, making them take effect immediately.

Late this afternoon, Luna said in a statement, "I have been fighting for better compensation for Idaho teachers through base salaries and pay-for-performance for 15 years now, and no one wants to pay these bonuses more than I do. I will find any way legally possible to distribute this money to Idaho's teachers, not just this year but every year. The only reason we are having these discussions today and facing uncertainty regarding this additional pay for teachers is because the teachers' union put Proposition 2 on the ballot."

(c)2012 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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