Analysis: In a testy superintendent’s debate, narratives come into sharp focus

If Sherri Ybarra and Cindy Wilson had their last big face-to-face showdown Friday night, it showed.

The two state schools superintendent’s candidates took turns going on the offensive during a debate, aired statewide on Idaho Public Television. Ybarra repeatedly touted her experience and tried to paint her opponent as uninformed. Vowing repeatedly to “show up” for kids, Wilson painted the incumbent as out of touch, and accused Ybarra of misrepresenting the record on her school safety plan.

Before Friday night’s Idaho Public Television debate, state superintendent’s candidates Cindy Wilson and Sherri Ybarra meet backstage for a coin flip to determine speaking order. The tone during the coin flip was lighthearted; the tone during the debate was heated.

There’s plenty to unwrap. Let’s focus on several key areas.

The Ybarra meet-and-greet

The Republican Ybarra tried to deflect questions about her Oct. 5 meet-and-greet at an Eagle bar, hosted by a former Mountain Home Junior High School principal who lost his educators’ licenses in the wake of a series of workplace sexual harassment complaints. Ybarra said she doesn’t condone harassment, but kept trying to shift the discussion.

“This is not about people or dragging anybody through the mud,” she said.

However, Ybarra offered some new insights into the story.

Ybarra said she was not privy to the details of the complaints against William McCarrel Jr., since he was her supervisor and she was not a school administrator at the time. She also said she moved “swiftly and correctly” to address Dan Goicoechea, who briefly joined Ybarra’s senior staff in 2017 after losing a chief deputy’s job in the state controller’s office amidst graphic complaints of workplace harassment and intimidation. (A year ago, the word from Ybarra’s State Department of Education was that Goicoechea had resigned.)

Wilson, a Democrat, said a state superintendent needs to be a role model for kids. And she chided Ybarra for brushing off questions about the meet-and-greet, since she held the event at a bar where no children were present.

“We bring kids into everything that we do, because that’s what this job is all about,” Wilson said.

The school safety plan

Ybarra’s controversial Keep Idaho Students Safe caught many education leaders off-guard — and the superintendent did announce the plan abruptly, via news release, after the 2018 Legislature wrapped up its work on K-12 budgets. But on Friday night, she said her plan was a long time in the making.

“This has involved many stakeholders,” she said. “It’s been a very long process.”

Wilson didn’t buy it.

She accused Ybarra of misrepresenting the record. And she said Ybarra plowed forward with a plan without consulting the state’s Office of School Safety and Security. “Our children’s safety should not be a political issue that is thrown around like this.”

On the substance of the KISS plan, Ybarra said her $18.5 million safety grant proposal would augment the work schools are already doing on safety. Wilson pledged a no-cost alternative headed by the Office of School Safety and Security. She suggested that the office has received a new grant to offset the costs — although that $450,000 grant will only cover a tip line, not staffing in the schools.

Ybarra said Wilson was misinformed on the issue.

“I am saddened that my opponent is not aware that the office of school safety is responsible for facilities,” Ybarra said. “The state superintendent of public instruction is responsible for the people inside that facility.”

The exchange was testy, and not unexpected. With 24 days to go until Election Day, school safety is most heated policy issue in this race.

Moderator Melissa Davlin, left, and the journalists on the panel asked the questions during Friday’s debate. Photo courtesy of Idaho Public Television.

Graduation rates

Ybarra described her re-election campaign as her “four-year evaluation,” and she offered a glowing self-review. “Everything in Idaho education is up.”

But she also repeated a questionable claim, saying Idaho’s graduation rates are improving. In 2017, the ra­te was essentially flat. The improvement was a minuscule .01 percent — or two graduates in a statewide class of 20,000 seniors.

Ybarra insisted her claims were not misleading. “An increase is an increase.”

Idaho’s graduation rate came in slightly below 80 percent. Wilson, a retired high school teacher, said the state needs to do more, and spend more, to help reduce its number of dropouts. “Those other 4,000 students who didn’t graduate have a name.”

The digs and the barbs, in context

When Ybarra and Wilson shared a stage at the Idaho Association of School Administrators’ conference in Boise in August, the tone was generally cordial.

Friday night was a different story. The barbs began almost immediately.

Photo courtesy of Idaho Public Television.

In thanking Ybarra for attending Friday, Wilson made a point of saying she had appeared solo at four events this week — including a forum sponsored by Idaho Education News. Wilson went back to that point in her closing remarks.

“(Ybarra) has dodged meetings, listened to just a limited circle, not sought input from all concerned with education,” Wilson said. “Her hands-off, go-it-alone style is typified by this school safety debacle.”

Ybarra got in her share of digs.

At one juncture, after Wilson touted her work on Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 task force in 2013, Ybarra took a sarcastic tone. “That is great that the governor appointed you to a 31-member task force.” (However, on two occasions, Ybarra touted her own work on a second Otter task force, which spent 2017 focused on higher education topics.)

And when Wilson made an apparent but errant reference to Matt McCarter, Ybarra’s point person on school safety, Ybarra did let the slip go unnoticed.

“I am so saddened that my opponent is misinformed,” Ybarra said. “I have no idea who Mr. McArthur is.”

The digs align with both candidates’ narratives.

Ybarra, as an incumbent, is touting experience and consistency — and she’s saying Wilson isn’t ready for the job.

Wilson, as a challenger, is promising a fresh approach — and she’s saying Ybarra has shown she isn’t up to the task.

These two storylines were in sharp focus Friday night.

More reading:

Idaho Education News reporters Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin served on the reporter panel for Friday night’s debate

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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