Legislative roundup, 2.25.21: Ybarra’s in-person learning bill advances

State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, left, and Deputy Superintendent Marilyn Whitney, speaking at the podium, answer questions Thursday at the Statehouse. Screenshot courtesy of Idaho In Session.

The House Education Committee advanced schools chief Sherri Ybarra’s in-person learning bill Thursday morning following weeks of tough debate inside and outside the Statehouse.

Ybarra’s House Bill 175 encourages school districts and charter schools to offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible during an emergency.

“The overwhelming guidance has been that whenever and wherever possible our students should be in the classroom with their teachers, support staff and their peers,” Ybarra told legislators Feb. 8.

Ybarra has shown up in person at House Education at least three times to push her in-person learning bill. She began working on it last year after hearing from parents and constituents who were frustrated with online learning and school closures during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I appreciate the strong statement of support for in-person learning by the superintendent,” said Rep. Julie Yamamoto, a Caldwell Republican and retired principal.

Ybarra has said she believes it’s the most important education bill the committee will hear all year. But several legislators — especially those who also support in-person learning — have questioned language and definitions in the bill and suggested it doesn’t have enough teeth in it.

It’s been a long road for Ybarra to get her bill out of committee:

  • She worked on the bill and began promoting it before the session.
  • A group of school superintendents voiced concerns with an early draft of the bill.
  • House Education unanimously killed the first draft bill of the proposal when Ybarra brought it for an introductory hearing Feb. 8.
  • Ybarra rewrote the bill.
  • Ybarra met remotely with the school superintendents who opposed it to discuss their concerns. They agreed to remain neutral on the rewritten bill.
  • Deputy Superintendent Marilyn Whitney steered the rewritten bill through its introductory hearing Feb. 15
  • House Education held a hearing on the rewritten bill Feb. 19 but voted to hold the bill until today.

In the end, House Education voted 10-5 to advance the bill Thursday.

Although the bill is back on track, this is still the beginning portion of its legislative journey. It heads next to the House floor with a recommendation it passes. If the House passes it, it would then be sent to the Senate Education Committee for consideration.

Many Idaho schools are moving forward with plans to reopen for in-person learning following a decrease in COVID-19 rates and increased circulation of the vaccine, particularly for school staff.

This is at least the fourth major bill on in-person learning this session. On Wednesday, House Education introduced a new bill to allow parents to pull their students out of schools that don’t reopen and then receive a payment from the state.

Senate passes school closure bills

On the other end of the Statehouse rotunda, it took the Senate less than 15 minutes Thursday morning to pass a pair of school closure bills.

They passed House Bill 67, which puts local school boards and charter school administrators in charge of closing schools during a health crisis. HB 67 authorizes the governor or the State Board of Education to close schools, and leaves health districts in an advisory role only. “This really is how things are functioning now,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, the bill’s floor sponsor. “This bill reflects the current state of affairs.”

No other senators debated for or against HB 67, which passed on a 31-3 vote. Three Democrats were opposed: Ali Rabe and Melissa Wintrow of Boise and Mark Nye of Pocatello.

The debate was only slightly longer when senators took up House Bill 68, which addresses higher education. HB 68 puts the State Board in charge of closure decisions for four-year institutions, while locally elected community college trustees would have the authority to close two-year schools.

Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, said local health boards would be better suited to close a college or university, as opposed to an unelected State Board that doesn’t serve the local community. Sen. Steven Thayn — the chairman of Senate Education, and the bill’s co-sponsor — said the State Board has shown its responsiveness during the coronavirus crisis. “I think they’ve earned the right to have this authority,” said Thayn, R-Emmett.

HB 68 passed on a 27-7 party-line vote.

Both bills now go to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.

Mentorship bill dies, by the narrowest of margins

It doesn’t happen often, but Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin cast a vote on the Senate floor Thursday.

And her vote killed a bill to create a volunteer mentorship program.

The Idaho Promise mentorship program was designed to support high school graduates seeking an apprenticeship, professional certificate or associate’s degree. The goal was to address the so-called “summer melt,” which causes some 4,000 high school graduates to abandon their educational plans each year.

Debate was limited. Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, cited the fact that Senate Bill 1109 would create a new program under the State Board’s purview, and questioned whether grants and donations would cover the $380,500 annual cost. “I think this is a big swing and a miss at creating another bureaucracy.”

Co-sponsoring Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said the mentorship network wouldn’t cost taxpayers. “There are businesses who want to help us do this.”

As the Senate’s presiding officer, McGeachin only votes in the event of a tie — an extremely rare occurrence in a legislative body with 35 members.

The Senate deadlocked on the bill on a 17-17 vote. Here’s the roll call:

  • Yes (10 Republicans, 7 Democrats): Sens. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise; Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle; Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston; Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls; Patti Anne Lodge, R-Caldwell; David Nelson, D-Moscow; Mark Nye, D-Pocatello; Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls; Ali Rabe, D-Boise; Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; Steven Thayn, R-Emmett; Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise; Chuck Winder, R-Boise; Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise; Jim Woodward, R-Sagle.
  • No (17 Republicans, 0 Democrats): Sens. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa; Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot; Regina Bayer, R-Meridian; Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls; Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville; Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs; Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; Fred Martin, R-Boise; Jim Rice, R-Caldwell; Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg; Peter Riggs, R-Post Falls; Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton; Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene; Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens; Christy Zito, R-Hammett.
  • Absent (1 Republican): Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls.

Office of School Safety And Security transfer

The Idaho Office of School Safety and Security would be moving under the State Board of Education thanks to a bill that advanced Thursday.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, pushed House Bill 173 due to transfer of the Division of Building Safety, which previously housed the Idaho Office of School Safety And Security.

Horman said the office of school safety wouldn’t fit at the new home from the transfer and she didn’t want to leave the office without a home. She said she and Den Hartog worked with Gov. Brad Little’s office, which requested the move.

The Legislature and then Gov. Butch Otter created the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security in 2016. The office’s staff visits public schools across the state developing personalized safety and threat assessments for the buildings.

On Thursday the House Education Committee voted to advance House Bill 173, which heads next to the House floor with a recommendation is passes.

If the bill passes funding for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security would be transferred to the State Board. The office would also be renamed to reflect it would be a program under the State Board, not a separate office.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News covered Thursday’s hearings remotely.

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