PROFILE: Balukoff makes education No. 1 issue

(Editor’s note: This is the second in our series of profiles of major candidates for governor and superintendent of public instruction.)

As a longtime school board member and businessman, A.J. Balukoff decided to run for governor because he was not happy with how education is being handled in Idaho.

Balukoff campaign
A.J. Balukoff, second from left, meets with educators during an Oct. 9 rally in Idaho Falls.

“I’ve been on the Boise school board for 17 years, and what’s become apparent to me is our state leaders don’t listen to educators,” Balukoff said. “I’ve watched for too many years as our great state has dropped to the bottom nationally in education and job opportunities.”

Balukoff was an opponent of Propositions 1, 2 and 3, championed by Gov. Butch Otter and outgoing schools superintendent Tom Luna before the 2012 voter repeal.

He thinks investing in K-12 is the best way to bolster Idaho’s economy, by training students to be better prepared for college and the jobs Idaho companies are trying to fill.

And he decries Otter and the Legislature’s decision to bolster rainy-day funds and cut personal property and income taxes before starting to reverse the steepest school budget cuts in the nation.

“You don’t take tax cuts in time of famine,” said Balukoff, describing his spending priorities for emerging from the recession. “Tax cuts are appropriate in times of plenty. We had over $100 million that we could have put in education, and that’s not one-time (funding), that’s continuous.”

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Balukoff’s background

Balukoff grew up in San Diego, the son of a Navy veteran who did not earn a college degree.

He became the first person in his family to graduate from college when he obtained his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Brigham Young University.

After college, Balukoff moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the CPA firm Arthur Andersen. He then joined a smaller firm, and remained in California for about 12 years.

Balukoff and his wife, Susie, married in 1980. Susie is the daughter of the late L.S. Sam Skaggs, a businessman and philanthropist who expanded his family’s drug and grocery store businesses into successful national chains.

Together they have eight children, including five from his first marriage that started while Balukoff was a student in Utah and lasted 11 years.

The Balukoffs decided to move to Idaho in 1982 to raise their children, who attended Boise public schools and now range in age from 29 to 45.

After landing in Boise, Balukoff worked as an accountant out of his home before taking on a partner and opening a downtown office.

Outside of his CPA firm, Balukoff began buying athletic clubs – including Park Center Health Club, Court House Racquetball Club and the Fit Stop.

He then sold his accounting firm to his partners and 24-Hour Fitness bought his health clubs.

Next, he and some financial partners built the Grove Hotel and CenturyLink Arena and started the Idaho Steelheads minor league hockey team. Balukoff retains an ownership interest in these enterprises.

Last year, Balukoff estimated his net worth at between $40 million and $50 million, with his wife’s inheritance and property valued at another $20 million, according to the Idaho Statesman.

Through Sept. 30, Balukoff had spent $1.6 million of his own money on his gubernatorial campaign.

Balukoff has served on the Boise School Board for 17 years. He recently resigned as board president to focus on the gubernatorial campaign, but continues to serve on the board.

Since moving to Idaho, he has been active in a number of organizations and nonprofits, including Children’s Home Society of Idaho, Warm Springs Counseling Center, the Boise Public Library, Learning Lab, St. Luke’s Hospital, Ballet Idaho, Boise public school’s education foundation and Brigham Young University-Idaho’s President’s Advancement Council.

Why he’s running

More than a year ago, a group of influential friends started pushing Balukoff to run for governor.

One of the most vocal was Boise attorney and former Democratic state Sen. Mike Burkett.

Burkett got to know Balukoff through his school board service, and became convinced Balukoff was the only person who had what it takes to derail Otter’s run for a third term.

“At the conference table, when A.J. spoke, everyone just had confidence in what he was saying,” Burkett said. “He had done his research, he knew his facts and he didn’t try to stretch things. He was right on point, and you can really count on him being honest.”

After initially resisting, Balukoff came back to his supporters with four caveats.

  • He is a husband, father and grandfather and family always comes first.
  • He has church responsibilities he is not giving up.
  • He would not resign his School Board seat unless he is elected.
  • Oh, by the way, Balukoff supported Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

Balukoff said his decision came down to two main factors: he believes running and holding office is a form of community service that he values, and he thinks education has suffered greatly in Idaho, especially during Otter’s eight years as governor.

Leadership style and issues

On the issues, Balukoff supports the 20 education task force recommendations, but said tiered licensure needs more buy-in before moving forward.

“I don’t understand why we are in such a rush to get it passed right away, why can’t we slow down and address the teachers’ concerns?” he said.

He favors boosting teacher salaries at a more aggressive clip than the five-year phased-in career ladder proposal, but declined to reveal how much money he would propose to put into teacher pay.

He also supports enforcing collection of Internet sales taxes, but wants to streamline the process so it is not a burden for residents.

Balukoff says economic recovery will increase state revenues, which would help pay for his programs. He would also forgo tax cuts until recession-era school cuts are reversed and would not have committed as much as quickly to rainy-day accounts.

He believes expanding Medicaid will bring an influx of federal dollars and reduce the counties’ and state’s catastrophic health care budgets – freeing up money for schools.

He also scoffs at suggestions he doesn’t have a handle on how to pay for his priorities, noting Otter also backs the task force recommendations that come with a $350 million pricetag.

“I’m going to get it from the same place (Otter) does,” Balukoff said during an Oct. 9 Idaho Falls City Club debate.

Balukoff doesn’t have traditional political experience, beyond his school board work and serving as treasurer for a few campaigns. But Boise Independent School District Superintendent Don Coberly says he is qualified to lead. Coberly has known Balukoff since he first was elected to the board, but is not making a public endorsement in the race.

“When A.J. is faced with difficult situations, I think he is comfortable being the person in charge, but he is fair and has provided for me just great guidance,” Coberly said.

Coberly points to two controversial issues that demonstrated Balukoff’s leadership skills.

  • First was the decision to run a school levy during the height of the recession to keep class sizes manageable. “He had a firm hand on the situation and answered every question that came his way, no matter how difficult,” Coberly said. Since then, the district has managed class sizes and reduced its levy.
  • The second was the decision to oppose Propositions 1, 2 and 3. “We needed to go forward and support teachers and our patrons and students… and our board wasn’t in a particularly popular position with, maybe, some folks in the community. Frankly, A.J. provided strength and guidance at a time we really needed it.”

Further reading:Click here for our feature on Gov. Butch Otter