The EDge, Kevin Richert's Idaho Education blog

Lessons from a dive into school data

Jul 30th, 2014

Data is not the story. Data serves the story.

That advice, from Seattle Times investigative reporter Ken Armstrong, may be the most important lesson I will try to take away from a 3 ½-day crash course in data-driven reporting.

The Education Writers Association brought together reporters from all corners of the nation — from New York and Connecticut to Florida, from California to Wyoming and Boise — for its 2014 “Diving Into Data Workshop” at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.

At times, it seemed like a plunge into open and deep and murky waters. After spending hours of crunching numbers and honing spreadsheet skills, we’d break for lunch or a snack, slowly decompressing and gradually regaining our communicative skills. We caught glimpses of a sunny Seattle-area weekend, but our days were pretty much spent submerged in statistics.

When I was accepted for this seminar, I told my Facebook friends that it sounded “sort of like summer math camp for wonky K-12 beat writers.” I meant that in only the nicest way, and it turned out I wasn’t far off.

But I think the concept of “diving” into data is a bit off the mark — at least where it comes to providing numbers that resonate with readers.

We were reminded that many good data-driven stories do not rely on sophisticated statistical analysis — just good old division, addition and subtraction. Associated Press education reporter Donna Blankinship reminded us that data doesn’t need to be stockpiled and deployed in ponderous multi-day reporting projects; it can be the cornerstone of good, short-term enterprise reporting.

And my group’s writing coach, Oregonian education reporter Betsy Hammond, showed us how to use tools like Excel to crunch numbers, and how to use the numbers to tell stronger stories. There was no avoiding catching her infectious enthusiasm for the wonders of Excel — remember, I said this was a wonky event. But she also left us spellbound as she walked us through her ambitious project to scour 880,000 state attendance records to weave a startling tale of Oregon’s high absentee rates. Numbers were key to the story. But the stories focused on kids and communities at risk — the people behind those numbers.

For my part, I’m resolved to come back to Idaho and try to use numbers to draw important connections. If I’m doing my job right, I hope I can bring trends to light and bring issues to life.

If you’ve checked out our Idaho Ed Trends data center, you know you can find great and easily readable snapshots about your neighborhood school’s test scores, finances and demographics. (In fact, if you haven’t played around on Ed Trends yet, use this link to go there … like, right away.)

It’s great stuff. And it’s focused at the neighborhood level. What I’d like to do now is take the neighborhood numbers and start looking for statewide patterns. Now that I’ve learned a few Excel tricks, I’m pretty excited about slicing and dicing the numbers, comparing indicators and helping us all look at our schools in a little bit richer context.

I’ve learned that Excel is my friend. Betsy Hammond told me so, emphatically. Who am I to argue?

I hope to be smart about using numbers, not just in big enterprise pieces, but in shorter but still substantial pieces. I’m hoping to drop a quick turnaround piece this week on school supplemental levies — based on some interesting facts I figured out playing on Excel. I hope the piece will add some nuance to the school finance issue, in a quick and accessible way.

I hope, as a reader, you’ll notice. But in a way, I hope you don’t. I hope we can make the numbers digestible, and the storylines clear and compelling.

In other words, I’ll dive into data. And I’ll do my best not to drown you in it.


Video vault: Nampa superintendent

Jul 29th, 2014

Recently, I sat down with Michelle Edmonds of KIVI and KNIN to interview new Nampa School District superintendent David Peterson.

(I’m the guy with the laptop, typing away choppily.)

Here’s the KIVI segment from our interview. And here’s a link to my Peterson profile.

For more video, here’s my “Making the Grade” segment from Wednesday night, as Michelle and I delve into further detail about Peterson’s priorities as he takes the helm at Nampa.

Balukoff: Shredding may have broken law

Jul 28th, 2014

UPDATED: 4 p.m., with reaction from Gov. Butch Otter’s office.

Gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff ripped Gov. Butch Otter on Monday — for shredding documents.

Balukoff, a Democrat, said an Otter aide may have violated state law by destroying paperwork from 22 candidates for the State Board of Education.


A.J. Balukoff

“Gov. Otter does not respect the fundamental American value that government should not keep secrets from the public,” Balukoff said in a news release.

Balukoff suggests the records destruction “would appear to violate state statute,” although the law doesn’t seem to explicitly address records retention.

On Monday afternoon, Otter’s office responded to our request for a reaction to Balukoff’s comments.

“First, Idaho law covers the release of public records, not the Idaho Constitution,” wrote Cally Younger, Otter’s new public records ombudsman and associate counsel. “Second, Idaho law does not require applications be disclosed. In fact, they are exempt from disclosure. (I.C. 9-340(c)). The law does require the disclosure of the names of applicants, which the Governor provided. The release of the redacted applications was to provide additional transparency. Finally, record retention policies are up to each state agency and the Governor’s Office protects people’s personal information, like phones numbers, addresses, Social Security numbers and drivers’ licenses, by shredding the applications once they are no longer candidates.”

Earlier this month, Idaho Education News (or “a media company,” according to Balukoff’s news release) filed a public records request for the State Board applications. Younger released 15 applications — from candidates who at least made it to the screening phase. The remaining applications were destroyed, Younger said last week, because the applications contained “sensitive personal information.”

The 70 pages of documents released last week were redacted to conceal personal information, such as driver’s license numbers, street and email addresses and telephone numbers.

Here is a link to the full Balukoff statement (which does identify Idaho Education News by name). And here, in full, is his news release:

Gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff today questioned Gov. Otter’s commitment to government transparency in the destruction of 22 applications for two open seats on the state Board of Education, which he noted might violate state law. “Gov. Otter does not respect the fundamental American value that government should not keep secrets from the public,” said Balukoff.

Last week, when a media company asked for the 37 applications, it was told that almost two-thirds of them had been destroyed because they contained sensitive personal information. “This action not only defies logic, it would appear to violate state statute,” said Balukoff, citing Idaho Statute, Title 9, Chapter 3.

Balukoff questioned what the destruction of the 22 state Board of Education applications says about Gov. Otter’s commitment to transparent government and obeying the state’s open-records law. “The public has the right to know who’s seeking positions in government, and there was no legitimate reason to have destroyed those records,” said Balukoff.

“One of the main reasons I decided to run for governor was to restore accountability and trust in state government. Everywhere I go around Idaho, people of all political persuasions tell me they’re tired of the cronyism and backroom deals,” Balukoff said, “I promise you that my administration will always maintain complete openness and compliance with our public-records law.”

More here, from Betsy Russell, Spokane Spokesman-Review: In an original post, Balukoff mistakenly said public records language was contained in the state Constitution.

More here, from Clark Corbin: A look at the two State Board appointees.

Valley district shifts to four-day calendar

Jul 25th, 2014

South-central Idaho’s Valley School District will join the growing number of schools operating on a four-day calendar.

The district will go to the four-day schedule when the 2014-15 school year opens Aug. 20, the Twin Falls Times-News reported this week.

The move comes even after district voters approved a two-year, $600,000 supplemental levy on May 20.

In 2013-14, 40 of Idaho’s 115 public school districts and nine charter schools operated on a four-day calendar. In 2007-08, before the Great Recession, 14 districts and three charter schools used a four-day calendar.

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!


Video: Talking State Board appointments

Jul 23rd, 2014

In this week’s “Making the Grade” segment, I talk with Michelle Edmonds of KIVI and KNIN about the State Board of Education appointments — and the curious application paper trail.

For more, here’s a link to Clark Corbin’s interviews with the new State Board members.

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.

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