PROFILE: Ybarra’s a surprise nominee, with an uneven campaign

In March, House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt kicked $1,000 into the campaign of Andy Grover, the Melba School District superintendent who appeared to be the GOP establishment’s choice for state superintendent.

Ybarra and DeMordaunt
Sherri Ybarra discusses prospects for education reform with Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, chairman of the House Education Committee. People generally say they want to see change, Ybarra said. “But then, when it starts, it feels uncomfortable at first.”

One recent October afternoon, DeMordaunt met at a downtown Boise coffee shop with Sherri Ybarra, the surprise Republican nominee. DeMordaunt came bearing a $1,000 check for Ybarra — and some campaign advice. He told the Mountain Home administrator to emphasize her on-the-ground experience, and hang tough against “entrenched interests” while making the case for educational reform.

Ybarra sounded ready for the fight. “We have squeezed every drop of education juice that we can from the old system. … It’s not working.”

Ybarra has been juggling her run to succeed retiring state superintendent Tom Luna around her work in Mountain Home — scheduling some evening events after school is out, taking leave from work to attend other functions. Her challenges have not been limited to logistics. Fundraising has proven sporadic. She has been working to introduce herself to voters who had never heard of her a year ago. And she has had to overcome self-inflicted gaffes.

If the first-time candidate didn’t know what she was getting herself into, she says she knows now.

A series of missteps

“(Voters are) not looking for someone who can run a perfect political campaign,” Ybarra said Sept. 23 in Twin Falls, in her first debate of the fall season. “They are looking for an educational leader.”

Ybarra’s campaign has been marked by missteps.

She had to backtrack in August when she listed American Falls principal Randy Jensen, runner-up in the GOP superintendent’s primary, as a campaign supporter. She had to do some quick website editing to delete wording that mirrored Democrat Jana Jones’ page. She found herself on the defensive when she didn’t speak at the Idaho school administrators’ conference in Boise — only to be spotted at a Boise coffee shop that same day, waiting to meet with a legislator. Earlier this week, she had to clarify her marital history, telling the Idaho Statesman that she and her current husband married in 1999, after her previous marriage ended in divorce.

Then there’s her voting record. In April, Ybarra conceded she did not vote in November 2012, when Idaho voters rejected Luna’s Propositions 1, 2 and 3. At a Sept. 26 City Club of Boise forum, Ybarra suggested this was an isolated occurrence, saying everyone misses “one or two elections.” But on further examination of her record, Idaho Education News learned Ybarra has missed at least 15 elections since moving to Mountain Home in 1996.

For Democrats, seeking their first statewide election win in a dozen years, every Ybarra blunder is seen as an opportunity. “Our state needs a responsible, hardworking, honest teaching professional in this important position,” the party said in a recent news release. “We cannot let a dishonest politician be Idaho’s top educator.”

Ybarra has her defenders.

“Ybarra goes to work every day as a teacher, principal and educator, comes home exhausted, pays bills, cooks dinner, looks at the family budget, cleans house and gets ready to do it all again the next day,” said Idaho Falls resident Kevin J. Cook, in a recent guest opinion in the Post Register. “She gives every red-blooded American hope that the 40-hour worker, the little guy, can rise up, enter the political world and make a difference.”

Money matters, and mixed messages

Like most candidates — especially first-time candidates — Ybarra uses a few go-to phrases as a rhetorical roadmap.

Student assessments, aligned to the new Common Core standards, should show student development over time: a motion picture, she says, instead of a snapshot. Education should focus on developing what she calls “the whole child.” She has suggested slowing down on a controversial tiered teacher licensure plan, but on balance, she considers the proposal “a step in the right direction.”

On perhaps the state superintendent’s most challenging task – preparing and presenting a K-12 budget that accounts for close to half of the state’s general fund – Ybarra has been shy on details. She has said she will seek “adequate” funding, without offering many details. And during a debate last week, televised by KTVB, her message was mixed.

Ybarra suggested she would not seek a budget increase for K-12 until she can dig in and account for every dime now spent.

She chided Jones for committing to restore school districts’ “operational funds” cut during the Recession — restoring these budgets, at a projected cost of $78 million, is a top priority of school administrators and one of the 20 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force.

She later said she would champion the 2015-16 K-12 budget drafted by Luna, which includes a 6.9 percent spending increase and a $10 million boost in operational funding.

Ybarra has been similarly vague about paying for education.

On several occasions, she has deliberately sidestepped questions about tax policy. Those decisions are “completely up to the legislators,” Ybarra told Boise City Club members. Six days later, appearing with Jones before an audience of some 200 special education teachers, counselors and school psychologists, Ybarra said she would explore “revenue enhancements” for education.

Can Ybarra rally the GOP base?

Ybarra enjoys one strong advantage heading into the Nov. 4 election: She gets to run as a Republican in a heavily Republican state.

At their coffee shop meeting, DeMordaunt’s advice came down to messaging. If Ybarra stresses her experience and background, conservative-leaning voters will come around. “You just need to give them a reason to vote for you.”

The job for Ybarra — since her upset win in the May 20 GOP primary — has been to unify and energize this formidable Republican base.

Grover is withholding his endorsement. After finishing fourth in the four-way superintendent’s primary, he’s still grasping to hear details from Ybarra. He wants to know how districts like his will be able to keep their doors open, without having to go to voters for a supplemental levy. “I hear a lot about having a plan, but I’ve never heard a plan.”

For Ybarra, fundraising has proven to be another challenge.

A couple hours after meeting with DeMordaunt, Ybarra hosted a small fundraiser in a Downtown Boise restaurant. The event drew some prominent Republicans: Ada County Clerk Chris Rich; deputy clerk Phil McGrane, an unsuccessful candidate for secretary of state; Controller Brandon Woolf; and Woolf chief of staff, Dan Goicoechea, one of Ybarra’s earliest backers. But at least a couple of Republicans in attendance said the party hasn’t done enough to rally around their candidate.

The following week, campaign finance reports showed Ybarra continuing to lag behind Jones in fundraising. Ybarra reported $22,183 in new donations; Jones reported $63,610.

There are some signs of the GOP coalescing behind Ybarra. Her website lists endorsements from 13 GOP legislators, including House Speaker Scott Bedke, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill. Two of those endorsements come from members of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriation Committee — although that falls short of the broad budget committee backing Ybarra claimed during a televised debate Tuesday night.

One of Ybarra’s converts is Rep. Wendy Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican and former Bonneville School District trustee. Like DeMordaunt, Horman endorsed Grover in the primary, giving him the edge for experience. After the primary, she met with Ybarra again. Impressed with her confidence and her on-the-ground credentials, she contributed $250 to Ybarra’s campaign on June 2.

That was a significant sum at the time — representing 83 percent of the funds Ybarra raised in the primary period. But after watching Ybarra win the nomination on a shoestring budget, Horman isn’t sure conventional political wisdom applies in this race.

“Whatever technique she’s using to connect with voters, we’ll see if it works again.”


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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