When state superintendent Sherri Ybarra spoke to Kootenai County Republicans recently, it didn’t take her long to bring up critical race theory.
Before a conservative crowd in one of the state’s most conservative pockets, Ybarra served up some red meat, repeating the oft-stated talking point that CRT is “based on Marxist ideas.”
Said Ybarra: “We do not have to adopt some sort of storyline that tries to erase our history books.”
But what did Ybarra say about CRT in Coeur d’Alene schools — which have already faced conservative backlash over claims of classroom indoctrination? That’s where it gets complicated.
Roll the tape
About nine minutes into the 15-minute speech, Ybarra brings up Coeur d’Alene schools. Here’s a transcript of the salient section:
“I’ve heard your concerns about some of our worst offenders, like the Coeur d’Alene School District. I’ve had lots of conversations with him. And he did say he held some community groups and talked about some of those things that are offensive to the community, and he’s working on it. He did say that he had a member of the public that’s been very vocal about critical race theory and social-emotional learning stand up on YouTube — you can look it up yourself — and say, ‘I was a little misinformed.’ But that doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t be at the table and paying very close attention to some of these things that make us very uncomfortable.”
So what was Ybarra saying?
On Thursday, Ybarra spokeswoman Kris Rodine tried to clarify things with a statement to reporters.
Here’s the key part: “The superintendent acknowledged hearing specific, multiple concerns from Coeur d’Alene community members alleging critical race theory in lessons or curriculum in the district’s schools. Her comment about the district being one of the worst offenders reflects the perception she heard from parents and patrons.”
The statement leaves several questions unanswered.
First, if Ybarra meant to simply pass on concerns from parents and patrons, it’s unclear whether the state superintendent herself considers Coeur d’Alene a CRT “offender,” or one of Idaho’s worst offenders.
In a statement to Idaho Education News Friday, Ybarra said, “I am not accusing the district of anything, nor am I defending it. Instead, I am advocating for parental involvement and communication between districts and parents. I appreciate and recognize as the correct approach the reported efforts of the Coeur d’Alene District to listen to the concerns of parents and other community members.”
So who did Ybarra have “lots of conversations” with? And who is the local resident who spoke out on YouTube? The former, said Rodine, is school district Superintendent Shon Hocker. Ybarra doesn’t know the name of the latter — and Rodine could not provide a link to the YouTube video Ybarra mentioned.
Coeur d’Alene school officials respond
And they aren’t happy — especially since Ybarra apologized to Hocker Thursday.
Here’s what district spokesman Scott Maben said in an email to Rodine, after reviewing her statement on Ybarra’s behalf:
“In the video, (Ybarra) leaves a definite impression that she acknowledges our district embraces CRT. Yet in her conversation today with Dr. Hocker, she said she misspoke, and she apologized to him for the grief this is causing us. We are really hoping that Superintendent Ybarra would acknowledge this in her public statement: That she did not mean to suggest our district teaches or otherwise embraces CRT, and that she is sorry for any misunderstanding her remarks have caused in the Coeur d’Alene community.”
On Friday, Ybarra framed her apology differently. “The context of what I said was, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this, but I’m not going to stop using your example to show how important it is that districts interact with parents and community members and listen to their concerns. No matter how painful it is, we have to get these things out in the open.”
What about these supposed numerous conversations between Ybarra and Hocker?
Maben says the two have never met — and have spoken only once. During this brief phone call, Ybarra asked about visiting a Coeur d’Alene school on Nov. 24, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Schools were closed that week.
Was this a political speech?
Ybarra has not yet announced whether she will seek a third term in 2022. But she sure sounded like a candidate.
She touted her education background, saying she has the broadest in-school experience of any state superintendent in the nation.
She thanked Kootenai County Republicans for their past support. “You took me over the top.” (That’s no overstatement. Kootenai County broke late — and big — for Ybarra in November 2018. Ybarra carried the county by 17,900 votes. Her statewide margin of victory was only 17,500 votes.)
Ybarra handed out copies of a letter she had sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland — who has become a popular target for the political right, after he vowed to prosecute patrons who threaten school trustees.
For good measure, here’s what she said to Kootenai County Republicans, in a community with some experience with tense confrontations at board meetings: “I think school boards need to recognize the fact that … sometimes parents are not going to agree with every little thing that (they) do … and they have the right to show up, and they have the right to engage, and that’s what we want.”
And she wrapped up her speech by handing out t-shirts.
Ybarra isn’t an official candidate, but she’s sending strong signals.