Candidates question Luna staff bonuses

Both candidates for state superintendent are questioning Tom Luna’s decision to award $151,000 in “retention bonuses” to senior managers — including four managers who have since left the state’s payroll.

Nearly one-fifth of Luna’s bonuses went to former staffers, to the chagrin of both Sherri Ybarra, a fellow Republican, and Democrat Jana Jones.

Ybarra and Jones are vying to succeed Luna in the Nov. 4 election. As a statewide elected official, the winner would have wide latitude to award bonuses to her staff. Using this latitude, Luna awarded bonuses of up to $9,998.40 to 22 managers — payments that exceed what an appointed state agency head could award.

Under state law, a department director can award bonuses of no more than $2,000. The guidelines are different when agency heads use salary savings to cover bonuses. According to a state Division of Financial Management guideline issued in March, these bonuses are limited to $5,000.

Luna presser
State Superintendent Tom Luna

However, the law and the DFM guideline do not apply to elected officials such as Luna. Nineteen of the 22 State Department of Education retention bonuses exceeded $5,000, and five came to $9,998.40 apiece.

The money came from salary savings within the Education Department.

Luna said he awarded the bonuses in order to avoid a staff exodus during his final year in office. And he said the program allowed him to keep 18 of the 22 recipients on board.

The candidates saw it differently.

“The bonuses that are paid to individuals who have decided they are leaving the department is not good public policy,” Ybarra said in a prepared statement. “However,  I do believe in rewarding teachers and educators alike  — who are on the front lines, for the good work they do for the students of Idaho.”

“Retention means you stay,” Jones said in an interview Tuesday.

Jones did not criticize the idea of awarding performance or retention bonuses. But she said the magnitude of the bonuses seemed out of line with the salary incentives available to teachers.

Luna said the staff bonuses were designed to be in line with programs that allow teachers to earn bonuses of up to 10 percent or more. The 2014 Legislature approved a new $15.8 million program that allows teachers to receive leadership premiums of anywhere from $850 to a maximum of $5,780.

“We’re not going to ask districts to do something we’re not willing to do ourselves,” Luna said Tuesday.

Other elected officials have exercised their bonus authority in different ways. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa — who, like Luna, is in his final year in office — did not award bonuses to keep staff in place.

Gov. Butch Otter awarded $20,250 in performance bonuses to 16 staffers, with the largest bonus coming to $2,000.

By contrast, Luna awarded more than $28,400 of retention bonuses to the four staffers who have since left the Education Department: deputy chief of staff Jason Hancock, testing specialist TJ Bliss, spokeswoman Melissa McGrath and office coordinator Camille Wells.

The practice of awarding bonuses — across state government — is drawing scrutiny from the Legislature.

Lawmakers have asked their auditing arm, the Office of Performance Evaluations, to take a closer look at the practice. That report is expected in January, at the beginning of the 2015 legislative session.

Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee Chairman John Tippets was one of the senators who requested the review. Tippets, R-Montpelier, wants to find out if the policy is encouraging agencies to keep positions dark — and creating an imbalance between agencies that can afford to reward their employees, and those that cannot.