Eclipsed? Sunshine law expansion killed

A bill that would have required all candidates to file campaign finance reports appears to be dead for the session.

The language in Senate Bill 1299 would have covered all school board candidates — even in the state’s smallest districts — and all ballot measures, including recall elections.

Sen. Souza
Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene

Sen. Mary Souza called her bill an attempt to bring “a little bit of sunshine” to Idaho elections, even the state’s smallest and most obscure elections.

Local government groups opposed the measure. Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, pointed out that the 2015 Legislature passed a law requiring sunshine reports for trustees in districts with more than 500 students — but the law hasn’t been applied to any elections yet. “We don’t know if the existing law is working.”

Lobbyists for cities, counties and highway and library districts also opposed the bill, questioning the burden it would place on candidates and elections clerks.

Souza argued that the reporting requirements would not place an undue burden on candidates. She said some candidates in local races raise money for their campaigns — but under the current law, there’s no way voters can know.

Boise Republican Sen. Chuck Winder referred to the West Ada School District recall battle in arguing for the bill. He said he has been accused of raising “dark money” for a recall drive against four trustees — and he said he would welcome the chance to file paperwork refuting the charge.

Winder’s Senate State Affairs Committee colleagues were unconvinced. On a voice vote, they rejected a motion to send Souza’s bill to the floor for amendments. That killed the bill for the session.

In other Statehouse action Monday:

Charter school contracts. The Senate approved a bill that would relax teacher contract requirements for charter school teachers.

Senate Bill 1248 deletes one sentence from state law — which requires all schools to use contract language approved by the state superintendent’s office. If SB 1248 passes, charter schools would be allowed to write up contract language on their own, and experiment with using one-year teacher contracts.

The debate centered somewhat on Gov. Butch Otter’s task force for improving education — and its 2013 recommendations.

Sen. Bob Nonini, the bill’s sponsor, pointed out that the task force recommended removing the constraints that hamper innovation. “Charter schools are meant to be different and innovative,” he said.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, a member of that 2013 task force, said the bill would undermine the task force’s push to recruit and retain quality teachers. She said the contract uncertainty could drive teachers away from charter schools, or maybe out of the state. “Striking one line changes everything,” she said.

The bill has divided charter school leaders and education groups, and Monday’s vote reflected that division. Six Republicans joined seven Senate Democrats in opposing the bill: Kelly Anthon of Burley; Bart Davis of Idaho Falls; Mark Harris of Soda Springs; Dan Johnson of Lewiston; Abby Lee of Fruitland; and Jeff Siddoway of Terreton.

The bill now goes to the House.

Broadband. The high school broadband issue — and costly legislative bailouts — consumed lawmakers during the 2014 and 2015 sessions.

If Monday’s Senate Education Committee meeting is any indication, the 2016 legislative fixes could sail through with ease.

The committee approved a pair of bills designed to clean up after the wake of the Idaho Education Network project collapse.

The first, Senate Bill 1333, would create a State Department of Education grant fund to help cash-strapped school districts bankroll their local high-speed Internet projects. The companion Senate Bill 1334 would create a state committee that would help districts shop for broadband services and apply for federally administered “e-Rate” dollars to offset broadband costs.

Both bills came from a legislative interim committee, which met between the 2015 and 2016 sessions to help the state replace the Idaho Education Network, which was mothballed after a district judge voided the project’s $60 million contract.

Computer science initiative. A centerpiece plan for the state’s new STEM action center is headed to the Senate floor for some fine-tuning.

House Bill 379 could launch a $2 million state computer science initiative — a program that would be funded by the STEM education fund. The fund would be funded with a separate spending bill; Gov. Butch Otter wants a $10 million endowment that would fund initiatives in the “STEM” disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

Senate Education voted to send the bill to the Senate floor for a series of minor amendments — although, in theory, any senator could offer any amendment. The computer science bill has already passed the House.

School improvement plans. The House Education Committee introduced a bill designed to clarify information districts must post on their websites.

A 2014 law requires districts and charter schools to publicly post continuous improvement plans, sometimes called strategic plans.

The State Board of Education’s bill would require school leaders to post “statewide student readiness and student improvement metrics” as part of their improvement plans.

The required data would include:

  • College and career readiness metrics showing the percentage of students who are prepared to continue their education at the next level.
  • High school readiness metrics.
  • Fourth-grade reading readiness metrics.
  • Various data sets showing the percentage of students who have made progress toward reaching the above metrics.

An October Idaho Education News analysis of school websites found that most sites did not comply with state law. Sixty-eight of 164 school districts and charters did not post school improvement plans. After the analysis was published, several districts and charters added the required information to their websites.

Funding flexibility. The Idaho House voted 68-0 to pass a bill that would change how class sizes are calculated for the purposes of funding flexibility.

Presently, districts lose flexibility for their staffing funding at 1 percent per year if their class sizes exceed statewide average.

House Bill 476 would change it so that similarly sized-districts are compared against each other for determining funding flexibility.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.