Saying Idaho schools rank near the bottom “in almost every measure of student achievement,” Boise School Board president A.J. Balukoff formally jumped into the governor’s race Tuesday.
Balukoff, a Democrat, blamed the plight of Idaho schools on chronic underfunding, and 20 years of Republican one-party rule in the Statehouse. Idaho’s per-pupil spending ranks No. 5o in the nation, surpassing only Utah, and the state’s college enrollment rate ranks among the lowest in the nation.
Introduced by Boise Mayor Dave Bieter — and flanked by supporters, including children waving signs reading “Grandpa for Governor” — the 67-year-old Balukoff made his candidacy official Tuesday morning with an announcement at Boise’s Hillcrest Elementary School. Among those attending Tuesday were several Democratic state legislators, former state schools superintendent Marilyn Howard, and Cecil Andrus, the last Democrat to serve as Idaho governor.
Balukoff’s announcement was not a big surprise. For several months, Balukoff publicly contemplated a challenge to incumbent Gov. Butch Otter. On Monday afternoon, at least one Democratic activist leaked the text of Balukoff’s campaign announcement, posting it briefly on Facebook.
For Balukoff, a 16-year Boise School Board veteran, education is a central campaign plank.
The board has publicly clashed with Otter on education issues in the past. Last year, Boise trustees publicly urged voters to reject the Students Come First laws advanced by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and supported by Otter. Idahoans voted down the three laws in November 2012.
But like Otter, Balukoff says he supports all 20 recommendations from the governor’s education reform task force. The list includes a teacher career salary ladder, restoring $82.5 million in school district “operational funds” that were slashed during the recession, and a universal commitment to student technology.
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Balukoff said the task force’s work came too late — and says the 31-member group should have addressed pre-kindergarten and higher education — but he says the recommendations represent “a step in the right direction.” Balukoff told reporters that he is running, in part, to call attention to the needs of education, and “to make sure those recommendations do go somewhere.”
Balukoff also decried Idaho’s “pay-to-play” political culture, saying it benefits influential business interests at the expense of everyday Idahoans. Asked to elaborate, Balukoff cited two education issues: the Students Come First contract that would have allowed Hewlett-Packard to lease laptops to every high school in the state; and Education Networks of America’s controversial multiyear contract to install WiFi in most Idaho high schools and junior high schools. Boise is among 93 districts in the state which is participating in the WiFi rollout.
Asked why he is running for governor, and not for state superintendent, Balukoff said the state’s schools chief should have experience in the classroom, and ideally experience as a district superintendent. “The state superintendent should be a trained educator. … I don’t have that background.”
While Balukoff’s political experience is limited to the Boise School Board, he touts his business background as a key campaign attribute. A certified public accountant, Balukoff also opened a chain of health clubs and was involved in the development of Downtown Boise’s Grove Hotel and CenturyLink Arena.
Who else is in the running?
Balukoff’s announcement further shapes what figures to be a crowded gubernatorial race.
Otter has not formally announced his bid for a third term, but that seems all but a foregone conclusion. Otter has named business lobbyist Jayson Ronk as his campaign manager — and on Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will appear on Otter’s behalf at a Coeur d’Alene fundraiser.
Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, will oppose Otter in the May GOP primary. In a statewide series of campaign announcements last month, Fulcher blasted Otter for supporting the creation of a state health insurance exchange.
Three other Republicans have filed paperwork naming campaign treasurers — a precursor to raising money and running for office: Walter Bayes of Emmett, Harley Brown of Nampa, and Steven Pankey of Shoshone. All three have run unsuccessful and long-shot campaigns for state or congressional offices in the past.
Former Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak has also filed preliminary campaign paperwork; he has said he is looking at running as an independent. Pro-Life, a perennial long-shot candidate, has filed campaign finance paperwork indicating that he will run as an independent.