Analysis: Ybarra loses funding — and loses face — in Statehouse showdown

(UPDATED, 7:08 p.m., with statement on the House vote on Treasurer Julie Ellsworth’s budget.)

Legislators dunked on Sherri Ybarra Tuesday.

No apologies for the basketball metaphor. It is March, after all. And it is thoroughly apt.

What better way to describe the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee decision to move IT and data management functions away from Ybarra’s State Department of Education and under the umbrella of the State Board of Education? The move strips away 18 full-time positions from the SDE — about a seventh of Ybarra’s staff — and slashes $2.7 million from her office budget.

And it’s more than a money grab. Since data is central to the way Idaho schools are evaluated — and funded — taking the data management functions away from Ybarra and her office is an in-your-face vote of no confidence.

Hence the dunking analogy.

And depending on who you believe, it all happened suddenly or it all has been building up for years.

Ybarra wasn’t completely blindsided Tuesday morning — although she told JFAC that she found the proposal “a little shocking.” But she says she only learned about the idea on Feb. 19, less than two weeks before the JFAC vote.

The next day, her staff received an email from Robyn Lockett of the Legislative Services Office, the team of state staffers that works with JFAC. Ybarra and her staffers attended a briefing on Feb. 24. Two days later, Ybarra sent a letter to Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, a JFAC co-chair, urging lawmakers to hold off.

But one budget-writer behind the move says he is responding to “a continuing pattern of difficult access to data.”

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville

 

“It’s been a problem for a number of years,” Sen. Carl Crabtree said in an interview Thursday. The Grangeville Republican declined to go into specifics, but he said his goal is simple: to make sure Idaho’s education data is better managed under one roof. (The State Board has far-reaching policymaking authority in K-12 and higher education, and board staff already manages data from the higher education system.)

Crabtree downplays the on-the-ground impact. The current IT and data staff will stay on the job, provided, of course, that they want to. Staffers won’t even move from their current workspace at SDE to the State Board offices, one flight upstairs in Idaho’s Len B. Jordan building. All that changes is the supervisor.

Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell

 

Some JFAC members were skeptical. Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, said the state was contemplating “a major shift in organizational structure” without involving everyone in the discussion. Democrats made a motion to keep the IT and data management jobs under Ybarra’s bailiwick, but only drew two Republicans to their side: Syme and Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston.

Ybarra had few friends on JFAC Tuesday.

And the State Board is staying out of this fight.

Asked to comment on the JFAC vote — and asked whether the State Board supports the proposed shift — spokesman Mike Keckler provided only a terse statement. “If the Legislature directs this change to occur, the Board will develop a plan to move forward.”

Gov. Brad Little seems equally happy to watch this one unfold from the sidelines.

“The governor’s office is monitoring the actions of JFAC and their implications, but we are primarily focused on the successful passage of Gov. Little’s teacher pay bill and other education priorities,” spokeswoman Emily Callihan said in an email.

Of course, Little is not completely a neutral observer.

His budget recommendation proposed no changes, leaving the IT and data management responsibilities in Ybarra’s shop. And if JFAC’s version of the budget passes the House and Senate, Little will have to decide whether to sign it, veto it, or let it go into law without his signature.

By no means is this the first time Republican legislators have sparred publicly with Republican elected constitutional officers.

It’s routine, for example, for GOP lawmakers to treat Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s legal opinions with disregard, or outright disdain. And just Thursday, House Republicans killed State Treasurer Julie Ellsworth’s office budget. The House voted down Ellsworth’s budget because it “looked to have room to be more fiscally conservative,” GOP Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma said late Thursday afternoon. Still, the vote comes amidst a bitter tug-of-war over first-floor office space at the Statehouse.

And it’s hardly the first time the Legislature has said no to Ybarra. For three years, lawmakers turned down Ybarra’s proposals to create a rural schools support network; each time, Ybarra received fewer votes on the House floor. And while it wasn’t as fiery as the debate over the IT and data management staff, JFAC Tuesday turned down Ybarra’s $500,000 request to expand Idaho’s mastery education program.

Turning down a budget request is one thing. JFAC does it regularly, especially in a year when frugality is the watchword.

Yanking money away from an agency, much less an elected state official, is a whole different ballgame.

And it illustrates a bigger difference in philosophy — a fundamental disagreement over the role of data.

“The most important function of the K-12 data system … is to collect information from our school districts to determine distribution of funding (its main function is not accountability),” Ybarra said in her letter to Bair.

To Crabtree, data is all about accountability.

“When you can distribute facts to people, that’s accountability,” he said Thursday. “That replaces opinions.”

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

 

 

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "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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