Idaho House Fast Tracks Optional Full-Day Kindergarten Legislation

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A modified bill directing $72 million for early literacy initiatives cleared the House on Monday, bringing the state closer to expanding full-day kindergarten options.

Efforts to redirect some of a record state budget surplus into full-day kindergarten have resulted in a labyrinth of rival ideas, cross-rotunda talks, and problems to establish a compromise. As the 2022 congressional session approaches its conclusion, Monday’s development represents substantial progress toward enacting a plan.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, said the new House Bill 790 allows “school districts more flexibility on how they spend their money so they can get the kids to read,”

After the previous version looked to be in risk in the House a few days ago, lawmakers immediately introduced HB 790 on Friday. HB 790, which was passed 40-29 on Monday, is a hybrid of two bills: an earlier Senate measure that would change how K-3 literacy funding is distributed across schools, and another bill that would require school districts to explain how they plan to spend extra property tax levy money.

The bill has now cleared the House, where it faces its biggest legislative test yet, keeping Gov. Brad Little’s objective of funneling an additional $46.6 million towards early literacy alive. The fast-moving bill will be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

HB 790 would modify state financing to offer more literacy money to schools whose kids improve on the Idaho Reading Indicator rather than schools whose pupils struggle to read at grade level on a regular basis.

“We want results. We’ve changed how we’re asking (schools) to show those results,” said Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell. “I think it’s well worth the money to do that.”

HB 790 must still pass the Senate, which comfortably passed the measure in its original form. To enhance early literacy funding and fund Little’s idea, a separate appropriations bill would have to pass both chambers — something the House overlooked when approving all other K-12 budget legislation later Monday afternoon.

The House of Representatives’ discussion on HB 790 on Monday was tinged by budget worries.

Prior to voting no on the measure. The planned $72 million line item, said to Rep. Greg Ferch, R-Boise, is “an awful lot per student.”

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, criticized IRI test score drops during the epidemic, claiming that additional literacy spending would have resulted in better outcomes.

“(Declines) cannot be blamed on the pandemic,” he said.

In exchange for additional literacy money, some politicians want school districts to minimize their reliance on local property taxes. Proponents of HB 790 thought that by mandating more financial openness, disclosures of levy expenditure would soothe critics.

It’s unclear whether the rewriting had any effect on the vote totals. The 25-minute debate on Monday was shorter than previous debates on the subject, and the question of tax transparency was barely discussed.

Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, voted no on the bill, claiming that it “opens the door wide open for full-day kindergarten,” a program he believes is not net helpful.

“We have not had that policy discussion and yet the bulldozer is coming down the sidewalk for full-day kindergarten,” Marshall said.

Idaho only gives districts money to conduct half-day kindergarten programs, but many districts already offer full-day programs using a combination of current literacy funds and other sources.

HB 790 would distribute half of the early literacy funds based on K-3 enrolment and the other half depending on how many kids are reading at grade level or progressing on the IRI from year to year. It would also offer greater funding to schools with a bigger percentage of economically disadvantaged kids by weighing them more strongly in its calculations.

It would also force school districts to declare how they intend to spend additional levies on the ballot. This requirement is nearly identical to a previous standalone bill that would have allowed districts to change plans for up to 10% of their levy money; however, HB 790 does not allow for that flexibility, and instead requires districts to spend funds as they promised and to post spending reports online annually.

Schools would not be given new authority to spend early literacy funds on full-day kindergarten programs under the measure. Many municipalities have already taken this step.

It would also cut money for full-day kindergarten and literacy initiatives in general. That would have to be included in a separate bill for appropriations.

Second Grader Sneaked His Handwritten Book To A Library, It’s A Hit

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The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis in the library’s collection in Boise, Idaho. CR: Alex Hartman/Ada Community Library

It takes years and years for seasoned authors to find an audience for their books but success seems to have arrived early for Dillon Helbig. The eight-year-old did not even need a literary agent for his book on time travel.

It all started when Helbig received a journal from his grandmother on Christmas. The young author soon filled the journal with a richly illustrated story in just four days. He named the book, The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis and ascribed it to “Dillon His Self”. The 81-page story talks about Helbig’s time travel adventures as he gets transported to 1621 after a Christmas tree explodes in his house.

By the end of December, Dillion’s grandmother took him to the Lake Hazel branch of the Ada Community Library in Boise. Ready to share his book with the world, Helbig used this visit to sneak it in and put it on one of the library shelves, hoping to find more readers.

After a few days, when the young boy checked for his book in the library, he found it gone. The book wasn’t lost but discovered by readers and library staff who were charmed by it. The library staff added the book to its catalogue and found it in great demand.

Alex Hartman, the library branch manager, told the Guardian, “Dillon’s book definitely fit all the criteria that we would look for to include a book in our collection.” He also added that Helbig’s debut book has a 55-person waiting list.

Idaho House Passes Teacher Health Coverage Bill

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Idaho teachers are one step closer to getting more affordable health coverage.

Major legislation to bring school districts employees’ health care coverage up to the same standard as that of state employees passed the Idaho House Monday on a 55-14 vote, after an hour of overwhelmingly positive debate.

“Y’know, 16 years ago I ran for the Legislature, and before I ran I never did check to see how much they paid us or what the benefits were,” Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, told the House. “I was surprised when I got here that I got health care for 125 bucks a month. That really was a big benefit that I never thought was out there. And I made the assumption that teachers also must be on this state plan and have the same benefits that we have.” But they don’t, he said.

Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he’s worked on the legislation for four years and been in at least 100 meetings about it. He said there’s “quite a gap” between what the state spends a year for state employee health insurance – including for legislators – and what it provides for teachers. “We pay $12,500 for state employee health insurance and $8,400 for teachers,” he said. “For a decade we’ve been trying to get that up to where the state employees are, we just haven’t been able to do it or have the resources to do it. There’s been many challenges. … It’s been hard for teachers.”

The change will have a big price tag: $105 million a year, plus a one-time buy-in fee of up to $75.5 million. The bill, HB 443, sets up the fund, though lawmakers still will need to vote on an appropriation bill. It also repeals an existing program that provides leadership bonuses to teachers who take on extra duties that now costs more than $19.7 million a year to partly offset the cost.

House Education Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, who originally spearheaded the leadership premium legislation, said, “Much as I love that, I think the trade-off here … is so much better.”

School district employees, including both teachers and classified staff such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers, now pay up to $1,500 a month for health insurance with up to a $5,000 deductible, said Furniss, an insurance agent. Some lower-paid workers actually end up having to write a check to the school district for their insurance each month, because premiums exceed what they earn.

“I think we can do better,” he said.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where it would need to clear a Senate committee and pass the full House to reach the governor’s desk. Gov. Brad Little championed the change in his State of the State message to lawmakers this year.

Only Reps. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, and Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, spoke against it during the House debate. Nate raised technical issues about the fiscal note and at one point was reprimanded after he suggested his opposition would be used as a “soundbite for the next campaign.”

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, said she checked with the state Division of Financial Management about the fiscal note, and was advised that a bill like HB 443, which creates a fund but doesn’t allocate money to it, has a zero fiscal impact. Backers of the bill, including co-sponsor Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said it would be up to the Legislature’s joint budget committee to vote on the funding, and the House would get a vote on that as well.

Treasure Valley representatives overwhelmingly supported the bill, but three – Reps. Greg Ferch, R-Boise; Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; and Joe Palmer, R-Meridian – voted against it. None of the three said why.

The bill would allow school districts to join the state employee health insurance plan, or to use the increased funding to negotiate for better coverage from other insurers.

Among the many House members speaking out in favor of the legislation was Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, who said, “As an educator of 32 years, I’ll tell you there has never been a harder time to be in education than there is right now. And it’s not just teachers – it’s also every other staff member that is working there.”

Rep. Matt Bundy, R-Mountain Home, a high school teacher, said as a retired Air Force officer, he came to teaching as a second career, and brought his health coverage and pension with him. “When people hear that I’m a retired lieutenant colonel from the Air Force and that I teach school now, very frequently do I hear, ‘Oh, you can afford to teach,’” he said. “I want people to be able to come into education and receive the respect and the benefits and the health care that they deserve.”

Horman said the bill could help reduce property taxes, as some districts now have to turn to supplemental tax levies to fund health insurance.

Boyle said, “I come from a rural district, as you all know, and those small rural districts have struggled mightily to try to come up with some money to help their teachers on health insurance. It can be a tremendous cost. And the last thing that we want is more supplemental levies to pay for that. So this is a chance for the state to stand up and put their money where their mouth is about really helping teachers.”

Scott drew several objections after she claimed the bill would give the appearance of benefiting Blue Cross due to campaign donations; it currently holds the contract to administer the state’s self-funded employee health insurance plan, but that contract goes out to bid again within the next year.

Horman told the House, “It doesn’t go to any particular insurer. … Districts will be able to take these funds, go out to bid.”

“We’ve heard in testimony from teachers who had to leave because their salary was insufficient to provide for a family,” she said. “I have never believed that we would solve the salary problem in this state until we solve this.”

A full dozen House members from both parties spoke out strongly in support of the bill during the debate. Said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, “This is wonderful. This is what I came to this building to see happen.” 

This article originally appeared in Idaho Press.

Librarian Transforms 110-Year-Old Tree into Charming Little Free Library

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A librarian and artist, Sharalee Armitage Howard, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, charmed the Internet with her repurposing of an old tree.

Sharalee Armitage Howard had a 100-year-old cottonwood tree rotting outside of her home. The tree was becoming dangerous but rather than cut it down completely she decided to make it into something the whole neighborhood could enjoy. She then registered it into the Little Free Library organization, the world’s largest book-sharing, nonprofit movement that aims to encourage exchanging and sharing of books.

“We had to remove a huge tree that was over 110 years old, so I decided to turn it into a little free library (which I’ve always wanted),” Sharalee wrote on her Facebook page. “Here it is (minus some cleanup, vegetation, and trim work)!”

This stunning tree stump library features a sloped roof, a large green door, stone steps, and warm interior lights. Additionally, wooden miniature books adorn the top of the doorway. These decors represent some of the greatest classics such as Nancy Drew, Call of the Wind, The Hobbit, and more. When Howard shared photos of her tree stump library on Facebook, it received overwhelming approval from the people. Her clever utilization of space and her advocacy for book-sharing have inspired other people to do the same.

Visitors are very much welcome to go visit this charming tree stump library in Coeur d’Alene. 

Photos of the Tree Library can be found below: