The EDge, Kevin Richert's Idaho Education blog

Boise trustee election starts heating up

Jul 23rd, 2014

Boise School Board elections are historically low-key affairs, as Travis Jones points out in a recent campaign email.

Travis Jones

Travis Jones

But Jones also came out with a few jabs in that same email, labeling his opponent, former state Rep. Brian Cronin, as a candidate “who represents the status quo.”

Writes Jones: “The main reason I’m running for this position is because I believe I can be a strong and capable representative of the majority: the people, parents, and taxpayers who invest in Boise’s public schools but have little or no knowledge of, or input into, the district’s activities, decisions, and policies in governing a $200 million budget, 3,900 employees and nearly 26,000 students.”

Jones, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, is executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association. Cronin, a Boise Democrat, served four years in the Legislature, and worked in 2012 on the successful campaign to overturn Propositions 1, 2 and 3. He now works in the Boise office of Strategies 360, a public affairs firm.

Brian Cronin

Brian Cronin

Jones and Cronin are vying for a two-year School Board seat. Incumbent Shauneen Grange, appointed in February 2013, is not seeking re-election.

Here’s a link to Cronin’s announcement. And here is Jones’ message, in full:

After a significant internal (and external) debate, I have decided to step out of my comfort zone and run for a two-year position on the Boise School Board. Did you even know there is an upcoming election for these positions? Don’t worry … most people have no idea.

The good news is the campaign is short … two months! The bad news is … the campaign is short. Election Day is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 2, and I need all the help I can get.

So “Why the Boise School Board?” you might ask.  I would respond with, “Why not?” 

The main reason I’m running for this position is because I believe I can be a strong and capable representative of the majority: the people, parents, and taxpayers who invest in Boise’s public schools but have little or no knowledge of, or input into, the district’s activities, decisions, and policies in governing a $200 million budget, 3,900 employees and nearly 26,000 students. 

I grew up on a farm and ranch in a rural community and quickly learned the values of hard work, responsibility, accountability, communication and respect. This indoctrination has served me well both personally and professionally. I have spent my professional career understanding how government works, how to collaborate with people of all strips and how to do the dirty work it takes to solve problems. If elected, I will apply these values and ethics to my work on the Boise School Board. 

As a father to a 6-year-old entering the first grade at Liberty Elementary, I was only vaguely aware of the activities of Boise’s public school system. Although I am heavily engaged in the community, I have never received information or any general communications from the district. I believe it’s time to open the curtains to shed a little light on things.    

I have an uphill battle against an opponent who represents the status quo. Winning this election will take an unprecedented turnout of voters and support. I hope to count on you to overcome the odds. I will do my part to make you proud!


Those destroyed State Board applications …

Jul 23rd, 2014

(UPDATED, 4:12 p.m., with comments from Otter’s office.)

This week, Gov. Butch Otter’s office released paperwork on some — but not all — of the Idahoans who applied for two vacant spots on the State Board of Education.

The rest, 22 of the 37 applications in all, no longer exist. “We have given you all of the applications we have,” Cally Younger, Otter’s associate counsel and the state’s public records ombudsman, said in an email to Idaho Education News Tuesday. “Previous submissions were destroyed because they contain sensitive personal information.”

But the same could be said for all the paperwork. Applicants are expected to submit their driver’s license number, their email and street address and phone numbers. The governor’s office destroyed paperwork for candidates who did not make it past the initial screening, Younger said Wednesday afternoon, to protect candidates’ private information. Otter’s office released other applications, with personal information blacked out.

Now that Otter has made his choices — David Hill of Boise and Debbie Critchfield of Oakley — all applications will be destroyed, save for the appointees, Younger said.

So, what does the state public records law say about retaining public records?

Not much, evidently.

In his public records manual — a go-to source on Idaho sunshine law — Attorney General Lawrence Wasden essentially tells agencies to do their best to do the right thing. “State agencies should adopt policies that are consistent with best business practices and generally accepted principles of accounting to classify and retain records. Record retention policies and procedures shall remain consistent with the principles of the Idaho public records law.”

The state does have a retention policy for human resources records and other documents. (On Page 10, you can find the policy for classified and non-classified state jobs.) But a State Board position is not a job, per se. It’s a political appointment. It’s unclear whether this language — or any other language — applies to gubernatorial appointments.

But back to the law.

The underpinning of Idaho public records law is simple, and stated in its opening sentence: “There is a presumption that all public records in Idaho are open at all reasonable times for inspection except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”

There are myriad exemptions to the law, including one that covers personal information. The applications Otter’s office did release were redacted to black out applicants’ addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and driver’s license numbers.

At any rate, here’s the tally.

In response to Idaho Education News’ public records request, we received paperwork for six applicants to replace Milford Terrell on the State Board — including Hill. (Those applications are available on our website.) In all 14 candidates applied for the position. Eight candidates didn’t make the initial cut, so their applications were destroyed. The list includes a couple of familiar names: Troy Rohn, a Boise school trustee who has run for the Legislature on the Democratic ticket, and Milt Erhart, a Republican former legislator from Boise.

Younger released their names Wednesday, along with six other applicants’ names: Dale Hensley, William King, Anthony Quilici, Jim Rehder, James Solem and Robert Terence.

We received paperwork for nine applicants to replace Ken Edmunds on the State Board — including the eventual appointee, Critchfield. But last fall, Otter’s office reported receiving 24 applications to replace Edmunds, so that means 15 applications were shredded.

Erhart also applied last fall. So, paperwork from 22 applicants was destroyed, or 23 applications, depending on how you want to run the numbers.

One more year: NCLB waiver extended

Jul 22nd, 2014

Idaho’s No Child Left Behind waiver will remain intact for one more year.

The waiver, first approved in October 2012, will remain in place through the 2014-15 school year.

“(Elementary and Secondary Education Act) flexibility has been effective in enabling Idaho to carry out important reforms to improve student achievement and that this extension is in the public interest,” deputy Education Secretary Deborah Delisle said in a letter Friday to state superintendent Tom Luna.

There are a couple of modifications to the Idaho waiver, however. For instance, the state pledges to come up with a “high-quality plan” to release annual reports on college “go-on” rates and college credits earned in high school, by the end of the 2014-15 school year. The department also pledges to send staffers for site visits to every low-performing “focus school” by Dec. 31 of each school year.

“Focus schools” receive two stars in state five-star ratings — the school quality ratings formulated in the wake of Idaho’s No Child Left Behind waiver. The star ratings take in several criteria, including test scores; graduation rates; student growth rates; and college readiness, as measured by placement exams. (To see your school’s star rating, visit Idaho Ed Trends.)

Idaho is one of 43 states that have a NCLB waiver.

For more on the waiver, here’s an article from the Twin Falls Times-News.


Could guns-on-campus law expand?

Jul 21st, 2014

Idaho’s new guns-on-campus law just went into effect on July 1, but could changes already be on the way?

College of Western Idaho President Bert Glandon floated the possibility last week, as his two-year institution adopted a rewrite of its firearms policy. Now, concealed weapons permit holders over the age of 21 will be allowed to carry guns on the CWI campus, in accordance with the controversial campus carry bill passed by the 2014 Legislature.

At a board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Glandon said he is already hearing rumblings about possible changes — perhaps dropping the concealed carry permit age to 18, allowing open carry on college campuses and considering weapons in K-12 and looking at weapons policies for K-12 schools. (Details from Kelcie Moseley of the Idaho Press-Tribune.)

But the Senate sponsor of the guns-on-campus law, Nampa Republican Curt McKenzie, said he doesn’t plan to expand the law and has heard no legislators talking about the idea.

“It is still pretty early in the process,” McKenzie told Justin Dalme of the Idaho Press-Tribune. “If people do come up with things, they usually come up with that closer to the session.”


Video: Talking WiFI and lottery money

Jul 18th, 2014

In this week’s “Making the Grade” segment, I talk with Michelle Edmonds of KIVI and KNIN about a couple of dollars-and-cents school topics: new money for WiFi programs, and a boost of funding from lottery proceeds.

Data security debate shifts to states

Jul 17th, 2014

When Idaho legislators approved a student data security law in 2014 — without a single dissenting vote — they joined what could be a growing trend.

States appear to be moving aggressively into the data security issue, 40 years after Congress passed its centerpiece legislation on the matter, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

In addition to Idaho, at least six other states have passed student data security laws since 2013, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an Arlington, Va., group that provides legal advice to journalists covering public schools and higher education.

Colorado, Florida, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Oklahoma have passed state data security laws in the past two years, LoMonte said during a webinar hosted by the Education Writers Association.

Oklahoma figures prominently on this list. Its 2013 data security law is modeled after template legislation prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that drafts legislation on dozens of topics, with a stated goal of advancing “limited government, free markets and federalism.” The ALEC template language limits states’ authority to share data with the federal government and other entities; requires states to prepare data security plans; and requires audits on state compliance with FERPA.

These features from the ALEC model appear in the new Idaho law, signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter on March 26. That’s not necessarily surprising; Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he had modeled his language after the Oklahoma law.

States have jumped into data security at a time when Congress and the federal Education Department have not been very aggressive in enforcing FERPA, LoMonte said. And enforcement is a component of the Idaho law, at least on paper: A data breach may be punishable by a fine of up to $50,000.

State endowment logs a big increase

Jul 16th, 2014

It was a big year for Idaho’s endowment lands.

But the payoff for public schools — the endowment’s largest beneficiary — may be modest.

The state’s endowment fund reached a record $1.736 billion, riding the tide of an 18.8 percent return on investments, the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell reported Tuesday.

The state Land Board received the news during its monthly meeting Tuesday.

There was no immediate boost in the K-12 payment, which has remained at $31.3 million a year for the past five years.

The state’s Endowment Fund Investment Board will meet in August to recommend payments for 2015-16, and when the Land Board reconvenes in September, the five statewide elected officials will settle on dividends. But it appears K-12 will see only a .6 percent increase, to $31.5 million, Russell reported, as the state tries to boost endowment reserves.

The endowment reserve debate has flared up in past Land Board meetings. State Superintendent Tom Luna has argued that the flat payment has not kept pace with inflation and enrollment growth. But he has found little traction with his colleagues on the board; they have sided with the investment board, which favors building a five-year reserve.


State could tighten contract rules

Jul 15th, 2014

In the wake of controversy over two school Internet contracts, the state’s Division of Purchasing wants to beef up its oversight role.

The division of the state Department of Administration would enhance its planning and monitoring of contracts totaling more than $5 million. That’s a fraction of state contracts — only 45 of the state’s 443 service contracts exceed $5 million. But these are by far the most lucrative contracts; these 45 contracts total $2.6 billion, while the rest come to $163.6 million.

The enhanced planning would come in the form of a change in state rule, which would be subject to legislative review in 2015.

“We consider the proposed rules for high-dollar service contracts to be an adequate and practical framework for contract monitoring that will enhance the state’s ability to mitigate risks for most of the authorized contract spending,” the Office of Performance Evaluations, the Legislature’s auditing arm, said in a report to lawmakers issued Monday. (Click here for a one-page report summary.)

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee received the report Monday.

“I think the eyes opened,” Rep. Maxine Bell, a Jerome Republican and co-chair of JLOC, told Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Big contracts were being signed at “all levels of government, and no one was paying attention.”

“I would say we’re part-way there,” Rep. Shirley Ringo, a Moscow Democrat and JLOC co-chair, told Russell, “but I wouldn’t say we’re at the finish line yet.”

Bell, Ringo and fellow legislative budget-writers were caught off-guard in January, when they learned about an ongoing delay in federally authorized payments for the Idaho Education Network broadband system. The Legislature forked over $11.4 million to keep the system intact until February.

Some lawmakers have also questioned a state-funded contract to install WiFi in high schools and junior high schools, saying they had no idea the State Department of Education was contemplating a deal that could run 15 years and $33 million. The 2014 Legislature allowed districts to opt out of the WiFi contract and receive state funding for their own systems.

While the 2015 Legislature will likely consider contract rule changes from the Department of Administration, other changes might have to come of lawmakers’ own volition.

The OPE report also recommends statewide monitoring for all high-dollar contracts — even if they are issued by state agencies or offices that do not fall under the Administration Department’s purview. The Legislature did not act on this idea in 2013 or 2014.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, told Russell he is working on such a bill, and hopes to generate bipartisan backing.

More reading: More from Monday’s meeting from Kimberlee Kruesi of the Associated Press.

The changing face of Statehouse coverage

Jul 14th, 2014

Fewer newspaper reporters are covering state government.

And more nontraditional news organizations are stepping in to fill some of the void.

Those are two important takeaway points from a Pew Research Center study — “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press” — released last week.

According to the report, newspaper reporters remain the largest segment of the nation’s statehouse media corps. Newspapers account for 38 percent of the nation’s 1,592 full- and part-time state government reporters, and 43 percent of the nation’s 741 full-time statehouse reporters. But the number of full-time newspaper state government reporters has dropped by 35 percent since 2003.

This precipitous drop comes as little surprise. It’s no secret that the Great Recession took a big bite out of newspaper revenue; meanwhile, newspapers are trying to revamp their business model to align with the shift to online readership. These two forces came at the same time, and hit the industry hard — with an inevitable effect on staffing.

Meanwhile, 16 percent of statehouse media corps falls under what Pew calls “nontraditional” outlets. That’s kind of a catchall category: It takes in nonprofits and for-profit outlets, specialized outlets catering to government insiders; and outlets with a “stated ideological point of view.” By contrast, wire services account for 9 percent of the reporting corps, and TV accounts for 17 percent.

As the report notes, many “nontraditional” statehouse reporters have traditional backgrounds in newspapers. That’s certainly the case here at Idaho Education News: all three of us worked for Idaho daily newspapers, and two of us made the jump straight from newspapers into the startup sector.

So what about the future? Or, as the Pew report puts it, “Can new players compensate for lost legacy reporters?”

Personally, I think that’s the wrong question. I don’t think our role is to compensate for “legacy reporters” — a term that always rankled me when I worked in the so-called “legacy” sector. I think our role is to fill a reporting niche that supplements and complements traditional coverage.

We’re not going to cover everything at the Statehouse. We will focus on K-12 policy, blanket the education committees, dissect the K-12 budget and keep an eye on tax issues that affect K-12. The rest —  everything from health care and business regulation to social and natural resource issues — are important issues that don’t fit into our bailiwick.

The same metric goes to covering politics. We’ll cover elections that have strong implications for K-12 — such as the governor’s race and the state superintendent’s race. We’ll leave other races to our capable colleagues.

I really think the question is whether “new players” can find a niche and produce unique, quality journalism. I think we’re on our way. Our articles are picked up by traditional news organizations around the state and our readership and social media numbers are headed in the right direction. We’ve also picked up some awards along the way. Not bad for an 18-month-old startup.

It’s a changing landscape, as the Pew report illustrates. But I think we’re carving out a place for ourselves.

FCC approves school WiFi plan

Jul 11th, 2014

(UPDATED, 1:28 p.m., with comment from Tom Luna.)

In a vote that could have dramatic implications for schools in Idaho and across the nation, the Federal Communications Commission voted Friday to put $1 billion a year into WiFi systems.

The plan could provide 259,187 Idaho students with WiFi access, according to FCC estimates, and eventually install WiFi in 726 schools and 143 libraries statewide. The FCC will find the money by shifting spending away from programs to fund voice service, email and pager purchases.

But the FCC proposal sparked some controversy, Kate Tummarello of The Hill reported Friday. Republicans fear the plan would trigger an increase in phone bills; Democrats feared the plan would come at the expense of basic Internet connectivity in schools and libraries. Ultimately, the plan passed on a 3-2 vote.

In a news release, state superintendent Tom Luna praised the move.

“Whether you are in an urban school district or a geographically diverse state like Idaho, we know we will never truly meet the needs of all students until we close the digital divide and provide classroom teachers the 21st century tools they need to individualize instruction for every child,” he said.

Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, hailed Friday’s move. “With today’s order, state education leaders now will have access to funding for internal WiFi connections that will support digital learning in the classroom and help create important educational opportunities for millions of U.S. students.”

Money for the WiFi initiative would come from the “e-rate” funding, a monthly fee attached to cell phone and landline bills. E-rate has paid for broadband initiatives — such as the Idaho Education Network, which has connected high schools across the state. But e-rate payments for this program have been on hold for 16 months, as an FCC contractor reviews the Idaho Education Network contract.

Friday’s FCC decision will have no effect on the Idaho Education Network funding situation.

For more on the WiFi proposal, here’s a link to my story from Thursday.


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