East Idaho’s new school board members plan to get back to the basics

POCATELLO — New school board members in East Idaho say they’re focused on the kids.

Idaho EdNews spoke to four winning trustees who centered their interests on traditional educational offerings, like technical education and career preparation, rather than hot-button issues that dominated some campaigns statewide.

Bonneville Joint School District welcomes two relatively new trustees — a brand new board member and another who ran for the seat she had been appointed to in September. The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District brings in three new faces after an impassioned campaign period.

Incumbents ran in 11 of the 16 races across East Idaho and four lost their seats in Pocatello, Bonneville, Blackfoot and Aberdeen.

Two members of Lt. Gov Janice McGeachin’s indoctrination task force lost handily in bids for trustee seats in Blackfoot and Sugar-Salem. McGeachin, a 2022 gubernatorial candidate, organized the task force to probe for purported indoctrination in the state’s public schools.

Preparing for the future

Trustees in Idaho Falls and Bonneville schools have set their sights on improving and expanding career readiness programs.

Incoming Bonneville trustee Randy Smith

In Bonneville, trustee-elect Randy Smith beat out incumbent Scott Lynch with 61% of the vote. Smith said he ran for office to help better prepare students for the world — boasting ideas for expanded trade school options and a goal to get all kids reading on grade level. He suggested that East Idaho’s largest district could add more trustees to its board. He would like to see it expand to at least seven trustees for more patron representation.

“I can’t see that anybody has done it in the state, but I don’t think that should preclude us from doing something productive,” Smith said.

Bonneville also welcomes to its board Carissa Coats, who took 61% of the vote over Matthew Sather.

Paul Haacke, an Idaho Falls trustee who was appointed in 2019, said he wanted to focus on expanding career-technical education opportunities for students. He said more solutions are needed because industry needs more certified welders and others with technical skills. He said greater resources are needed to address student mental health, which has become a focal point in schools during the pandemic.

“Students today have so much more pressure on them than anything I had when I was in high school,” Haacke said, naming social media as one area of concern.

Building bridges

The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District’s three new trustees secured their seats after a campaign that followed a failed recall attempt.

Incoming Pocatello-Chubbuck trustee Heather Clarke

Heather Clarke, who won 58% of the vote over two opponents, said she brings to the table an open mind without an agenda. She wants to learn more about school funding and about the issues the district and administration face.

“The challenge we have is entering into the position mid-year, so I do not want to be ‘disruptive,’” Clarke wrote in an email to EdNews. She’d rather use this time to “listen, observe how things run in general and also get to know my fellow Board members first.”

Incoming Pocatello-Chubbuck trustee Deanna Judy, left

The other newcomer, Deanna Judy, beat out board chairman Dave Mattson after winning 56% of the vote. In her campaign, she worried about critical race theory’s impact on the educational system, saying that the concept is not being taught in area schools, but claiming that some adjacent concepts, including equity and “social justice,” are creeping into coursework.

After the race, Judy laid out goals to foster communication between parents and school leaders. She told EdNews in an email that she hopes this will boost school enrollment, and that the recent recall effort in her district was driven by a feeling of being “shut out of the decision-making process.”

“I know that school board members have to make decisions that are sometimes difficult and unpopular, but I hope that through open communication we can retain the support of our parents, teachers and community,” Judy said.

Pocatello’s board also welcomes Angie Oliver, who ran unopposed.

Outgoing trustee reflects

Amid the turnover of incumbents in East Idaho school board elections and statewide, Mattson said districts will lose out on important institutional knowledge about how to serve kids. That becomes important when trustees grapple with issues like teacher retention, he said, as bad policies could spur some to retire early, forcing districts to seek out new hires.

Outgoing Pocatello-Chubbuck School District board chair Dave Mattson.

“We’ve been there,” Mattson said of incumbent trustees. “We know all the acronyms” that are key to the job and the state and federal regulations that officials must abide by. “It’s much harder for a person coming in to learn that stuff.”

The two-term trustee thinks he was ousted in part over COVID-19 animosity — and other complaints about the board’s approach to renaming a controversial Native American mascot and redrawing school boundaries — that fueled failed recall attempts.

“I think we got voted out because we were part of that ugly period,” Mattson said.

But if he had to re-do the schools’ COVID-19 approach — which involved mask requirements and hybrid learning — he’d do it all over again.

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