By Brian Murphy
An overflow crowd of citizens wanting to testify before Friday's meeting of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee filled into the Idaho Capitol early in the morning.
With all 240 seats in the Capitol Auditorium occupied, legislative services opened an overflow room across the hallway with full audio and video of the meeting. That room, too, was filled with more than 100 people, and lawmakers opened another room.
"This is gratifying. I'm delighted you care so much about your government to come this morning," said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Never before has budget-writing JFAC taken public testimony. With Superintendent Tom Luna's proposal to change the public K-12 education system in the state, interest in the subject attracted many, many Idahoans to the Capitol before the sun had reached the Boise sky.
"We want to be listening and have more public involvement as we set budgets. These are unprecedented times. And I think it requires that we be creative and those creative ideas and thoughts will come from, in my opinion, the public," said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Among those in the hallway before the hearing were Nancy Berto of Boise, a retired secretary at Mountain Home Air Force Base. Berto held two day-glow orange signs reading, "Stop the Luna-cy" and "Save Our Schools."
"I'm just here representing myself," Berto said. "It's my own personal protest."
Former Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, was the first to testify.
"If we do not invest in our teachers the way they deserve to be invested in, we will not reap the benefits of their hard work," Durst said. "We need to provide (districts) the opportunity to spend the money freely as they so choose."
Julie Dillehay, a counselor at Vallivue High, said raising student-teacher ratios could have a huge impact, costing her school between $800,000 and $1 million in revenue.
"That's significant when you're asking people to educate children," Dillehay said.
She said overcrowding is an issue already.
"What you're seeing here," she said about the overcrowded room, "is what our classroom look like this fall."
Dennis Burt, of Coeur d'Alene, testified that Luna's plan is "flawed to the point of guaranteed failure."
Karen Mahoney, a mother from Eagle, said she was testifying on behalf of her two sons.
"Mr. Luna's plan is bad for students, bad for teachers and bad for business in this state," she said.
She said she worries about the Proposal to give all ninth-graders a laptop.
"Is the state of Idaho prepared to deal with the repercussions if that laptop is used by a cyber bully or a sexual predator?" Mahoney said.
Colby Gull, the superintendent of the Challis School District, testified in support of Luna's plan.
"We can't continue to cut. We need to change the system," Gull said.
Kent Black, a parent from Jerome, said "demanding more of our teachers and paying them less is not the answer."
Wayne Hoffman, the director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said he "wholeheartedly supports Superintendent Luna's proposal. ... It brings us more in line with what you see in 21st century education."
Hoffman also outlined waste in public schools.
Tina Williams, a science teacher at West Minico Middle School in Paul, said the average class size at her school was 27 with some classes as large as 35. She testified against Luna's plan.
Lauren Peters, a parent of four teenage children in Hansen, cried during her testimony while discussing the music and drama classes that have been cut from her district.
"My son will graduate and for the first time, as long as anyone can remember, no high school band will play pomp and circumstance," Peters said through tears.
Superintendent Luna sat in the room and listened to the public testimony.
Danielle Ahrens, a Republican official from Bonners Ferry, said fiscal discipline is the most important lesson we can teach our students.
"We don't have the money. We have to make cuts. It's not fun. It's hard," she said. "At home, in our budgets, this is what we have to do. It's simple math."
Steven Adams, who oversees online course improvement for BYU-Idaho, spoke in favor of the plan, saying "online education does work."
Meghan Ridley, a special education teacher from Sandpoint, asked lawmakers to consider if "thousands of educators are wrong about the needs of a system they studied for, work in and have dedicated their professional lives to. I think not."
Lorna Finman, a CEO of a high-tech business in Post Falls, said she supports Luna's plan.
"The world has changed and there is a new economic and harsher reality," Finman said. "The system of producing a competitive work force is failing. ... We are not tapping into the potential of these students."
Maria Nate, from Rexburg, said she supports Luna's "forward-thinking plan."
"I call myself an ardent public education supporter," Nate said. "The way we do business ... is not working."
Nate blasted the teachers' union for not looking out for the best interests of students or teachers.
"Now, committee members, is the time to show your courage and do the right thing," Nate said.
Wayne Ross, a teacher at College of Western Idaho, asked if parents would be able to opt out of the laptop program or online courses for their children.
Pat Bollar, from Rupert, asked that lawmakers "please don't demean the importance of teachers in the classroom." She said that using technology to replace teachers ignores the reality of how students learn.
Ryan Kerby, the superintendent in New Plymouth, said he supports Luna's plan with some changes, including reducing the number of online courses from two each year to two for all of high school.
Brandie VanOrder, a Boise State junior, and Jason Denizac, with the Idaho Student Association, argued on testified on behalf of more funding for college education.
"When state funding decreases and we students have to fund our own education, we end up asking, 'How am I going to pay these bills this month rather than when am I going to do my homework?' " VanOrder said.
Kaitlin Howell, a student at Boise's Capital High, said her experience with online courses was poor and asked lawmakers not to require additional online courses.
Sheri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, said educators in the state are "offended by the idea we haven't been putting students first all along." She said Luna's plan was "hastily" put together.
LaVon Dresen, a third-grade teacher in Emmett and a self-described conservative, said adding two to five more students to her classroom would cause many issues. "In this plan, I see a lot of things that are going to harm our children and not a whole lot that is going to help them," Dresen said.
Britton Blauer, a teacher from Pocatello, said her family struggled because of pay cuts that she and her teacher husband had to take. Blauer cried when discussing taking a second job "not because I wanted to, not because I had spare time, but because I had to support my family." She said the 29 students in her classes "deserve individual attention every day."
Luna responds to testimony
As the committee continues to take testimony, Luna said the teachers' union distributed talking points to its members and made an organized effort to "get people here from all around the state."
He said the firefighters' union "sent out an e-mail saying to show up to support the teachers but don't tell anyone who you are with."
Because of those efforts, Luna expected a bigger crowd. There is no sign of firefighters at the Capitol.
"There's a process when you live in a republic. Everybody has not just the privilege but the right to be heard," Luna said. "That's what's happening today and I suspect it will happen a few more times before this legislation is on the governor's desk."
He said much of the testimony has been filled with misconceptions, especially about online courses. Luna said those courses are taught by an Idaho-certified teacher.
Luna said comments from school administrators, superintendents and school board members about the need for flexibility is something he will keep in mind moving forward.
"As this plays out and rolls out, it's important that school boards and superintendents are comfortable with the amount of flexibility they have," Luna said.
Back to testimony
Terry Soule, a teacher at Canyon Springs in Caldwell, joked that he could not believe the United State made it to the moon without online classes.
"You need to step up and find the income to invest in the future of this state," Soule said.
Jennifer Swindell, the public information officer for the Caldwell School District, said her district supports Luna's plan because "we can't take more cuts to education funding."
She said if pay-for-performance had been in place the last couple years, teachers in Caldwell would have made a lot of money.
John Gannon, a former Democratic state representative, urged lawmakers to not let a statewide policy "usurp the role of local school boards."
Though the meeting was scheduled to end at 11 a.m., chairwoman Maxine Bell said the committee would continue to take testimony from out-of-area residents.
Bell said more than 130 people signed up to speak. She encouraged others to send their comments via technology, which drew a laugh in the room.
Many in the audience left at 11 a.m., but the 240 seats in the room remain almost completely filled.
Rebecca Bohman, from Idaho Falls, testified that "virtual education works and it works for young kids."
She said she has been teaching her children through K12 and the Idaho Virtual Learning Academy. "It gives my children a very customized education and they have been able to move ahead," she said.
Idaho Education Association president Sherri Wood said it is common for her organization to pay for travel and meals for members that travel to conferences or hearings, as it did for Friday's committee meeting.
"Why shouldn't we do that?" Wood said. "That's our responsibility. That's what we're about."
Wood said parents have been telling teachers that they are concerned about aspects of Luna's proposal since it was first unveiled.
"It's very exciting to see that many citizens of the state of Idaho are concerned about what's happening with the Luna plan and that they turned out today to express their opinion," she said.
"You cannot replace a caring, dedicated teacher with a computer."
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