Legislative roundup, 1.29.21: Boise State budget pitch turns testy

In a tense budget hearing Friday morning, President Marlene Tromp touted Boise State University’s coronavirus response, before fielding a series of pointed questions about campus politics.

“What we have is an agenda of serving our students and serving our state,” Tromp told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

In the weeks to come, JFAC will write a budget for the state’s higher education system — and consider a recommendation from Gov. Brad Little, which would cover some but not all of Boise State’s coronavirus-related losses.

But Friday’s budget hearing also foreshadowed the debate that will likely unfold later this session. Reps. Ron Nate and Priscilla Giddings — two hardline Republican conservatives assigned to JFAC last year — pushed Tromp on social issues.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg

“Our constituents are upset and want some action taken, against BSU in particular,” said Nate, R-Rexburg.

Nate ticked off a series of concerns, echoing a recent white paper co-authored by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative lobbying group. He accused Boise State University of supporting the “Marxist cause” of Black Lives Matter; severing its law enforcement contract with the Boise Police Department; and pushing a coffee shop off of campus because of its owner’s vocal support of law enforcement.

Tromp pushed back on some points. She said Boise State puts no state dollars into Black Lives Matter, and said Boise State did not sever its Boise Police Department contract. (The university entered a fifth and final year of the contract in August.) “There has been a great deal of misinformation,” she said.

Nate also drew a warning from JFAC’s House co-chair, Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, who admonish Nate to stick to funding requests.

“We’re a budget committee, not a political policy committee,” Youngblood said.

Nate also pushed another talking point from the Freedom Foundation white paper. He asked Tromp if she would support breaking the higher education budget into four bills, so other institutions could be shielded from the controversy Boise State “has invited from the Legislature.”

Boise State University president Marlene Tromp

Youngblood told Tromp she didn’t need to answer the question. But Tromp noted that the state’s four-year institutions have entered a time of “extraordinary collaboration,” and she voiced her support for Little’s budget recommendation.

The bulk of Boise State’s hour-long budget presentation did focus on numbers, as Tromp cited several success stories:

  • Boise State’s research portfolio reached a record $58 million last year, a 41 percent increase over five years.
  • First-year student retention has approached 80 percent, up from 60 percent 15 years ago.
  • The six-year graduation rate has neared 54 percent. A decade ago, the graduation rate was 30 percent.

But the pandemic has caused short-term budget cuts and long-term restructuring, Tromp said. The university saved $21.9 million in the short term, through measures such as furloughs and a hiring freeze. Cutting 194 permanent campus positions will yield $15.9 million in permanent savings, she said.

But Boise State faces ongoing revenue issues — from canceled room-and-board contracts to lost income from athletics and campus events.

Little has recommended draining a higher education savings account to cover some revenue losses from 2020; Boise State would receive $4.3 million from this transfer. A newly passed federal coronavirus stimulus law will provide Boise State $15.1 million that it could use to offset future losses.

Even so, Boise State is facing a net revenue loss of $13 million, Tromp and university CFO Mark Heil told budget-writers.

As the heated hearing wrapped up, Tromp received public plaudits from one budget-writer. Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said she wanted to make a point of praising Tromp, and Boise State, for its contributions to the community.

“I am afraid she may leave the room without knowing that,” Ward-Engelking said.

House Education Committee takes up school closure authority

After a slow start to the session, the House Education Committee introduced three new bills Friday, including legislation addressing school closure authority due to contagious disease.

Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt

Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, sponsored House Bill 67, which would take away the power of public health districts and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to close schools.

Under the bill, only, the governor, the State Board of Education and elected school boards and charter school board of directors (who are not elected by taxpayers) would have authority to close schools or limit programs.

The bill also states that if the governor, State Board, a local school board or charter board of directors decides to reopen schools or not require safety measures, those actions would not be considered a violation of an existing public health order or city order.

“We have talked a lot this session about representative governance and balance of power and this certainly addresses that in terms of our boards of trustees and their abilities to make decisions on behalf of those that they have responsibility for, their school districts,” DeMordaunt said.

Moments later, DeMordaunt and Kerby pushed for the successful introduction of House Bill 68, a similar bill addressing community colleges. Under that bill, only the community college’s board of trustees would be able to close a college or any of its buildings or campuses.

Friday’s hearings were only introductory. There was no public testimony. Now that the bills have been introduced, they could return to House Education for a full public hearing.

It’s no surprise bills addressing school closure authority were among the earliest education bills introduced this session. Legislators serving on an education working group during the offseason tried unsuccessfully to take up school closure authority during the August special session, but Little declined to add it to the agenda.

DeMordaunt said her bill came out of the summer working group.

Heading into the session, school closure authority was one of the top education issues to watch.

Kerby aims to reduce reporting requirements

In other action Friday, Kerby sponsored a sprawling, 15-page bill that touches on a number of different topics and subjects such as teacher evaluations, professional endorsements, literacy plans, continuous improvement plans, mentors and college and career advising.

Having only been introduced Friday, it’s hard to track the exact changes the bill would enact. But Kerby said the basic point is to reduce reporting requirements and bureaucracy and focus on things that matter, such as whether students can read.

Under House Bill 69, schools would not have to send literacy reports or college and career advising plans to the State Board.

Rep. Ryan Kerby

Kerby also said the bill would specify in law that schools only need to use half of the domains from a widely used teacher evaluation system that is tied to a teacher’s ability to earn a raise.

Kerby said there is a little known practice that only two of the four domains from Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching need be used, and he wants that made more obvious by spelling it out in law.

During the introductory hearing, Kerby did not disclose that he has been reprimanded for violating state law and the state code of ethics for turning in teacher evaluations that did not factor in all data required by state law, dating to his time as school superintendent in New Plymouth.

In 2017, the Professional Standards Commission (which oversees teacher certification in Idaho) placed a written reprimand in Kerby’s education certification file saying he “willfully or deliberately” reported to the state that all 59 of New Plymouth’s teachers were equally proficient, without factoring student growth into the evaluation scores, as Idaho law requires. Kerby has since retired as a superintendent.

Kerby fought the accusations vigorously and denied he broke state law. He blamed the state for not providing him proper training. He said the PSC director “cooked up” the complaint against him for political reasons. He blamed Idaho Education News for mispresenting the situation in news coverage. He blamed a district secretary for turning in incomplete evaluations on a day he was absent from school serving in the Legislature.

Ultimately, however, Kerby signed a stipulation agreement and the PSC rejected his arguments and defense.

“Not doing one’s job as required by law and letting others do one’s job is willful and deliberate, particularly when the work that is submitted is one’s own responsibility and does not comply with the law,” a PSC panel found in 2017.

Introducing House Bill 69 clears the way for a full committee hearing.

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