Gubernatorial candidates pan higher ed ‘CEO’ proposal

None of the major candidates for governor, Republican or Democrat, are sold on Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to hire a $200,000-a-year higher education “CEO.”

On the GOP side, Boise developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador oppose Otter’s plan. Lt. Gov. Brad Little is noncommittal, but says the proposal “deserves robust discussion.”

Among the Democrats, Boise school trustee A.J. Balukoff and state Rep. Paulette Jordan both call the CEO proposal premature, but they support having a consultant study savings potential in the higher education system.

The candidates’ views are important, because the next governor will inherit this issue. Otter is retiring at the end of the year. So even if the Legislature goes along with the idea to create — and fund — a CEO’s position, the fate of the job will rest in the hands of the winner of the November gubernatorial race.

Otter has embraced the “chief education officer” idea, pushed by business executives who served on his higher education task force. He believes the CEO could streamline administrative functions on the state’s college and university campuses, saving millions of dollars that can be plowed into scholarships and student support. For a 2018-19 launch, Otter wants $769,500 — including $500,000 in one-time money for a consultant’s study, and $269,500 for the CEO’s salary and benefits.

Idaho Education News surveyed the gubernatorial candidates about the CEO, and the other ideas from the task force. Here’s what they had to say.

Tommy Ahlquist

Ahlquist: He embraces the idea behind the CEO — finding savings that the state can pass on to students and families. But he says the governor’s office should take a hands-on approach. “Adding an extra layer of government bureaucracy to fix a problem is not my idea of a solution to the challenges facing our higher education system.”

Ahlquist says he has been advocating several ideas that made the task force’s recommendations — such as outcomes-based higher education funding and transferrable dual credits for high school students. But Ahlquist has criticized Otter’s use of task forces, and continued on that theme last week. “We didn’t need a task force to figure this out, and most importantly none of it is going to happen without leadership and execution from the top.”

Raul Labrador

Labrador: The CEO proposal is a proposal to grow government — and it only came from business representatives on the task force, almost two weeks after the group wrapped up its meetings. “The notion that Idaho needed a higher education CEO was recommended by only seven of 36 members of the task force who formally came forward with this suggestion in September. It is not a recommendation of the task force and should not be treated as such.”

Like Ahlquist, Labrador said he likes some of the task force’s recommendations, such as a “guided pathways” approach that will help prepare students for life after high school. And like Ahlquist, Labrador takes a dig at Otter’s approach. “Leadership through task-force recommendations is not real leadership.”

Brad Little

Little: The candidate who carries Otter’s endorsement comes closest to endorsing Otter’s CEO proposal. Or, at least, he doesn’t rule it out. “The higher education CEO is an idea that deserves robust discussion along with a study to address how to achieve greater efficiencies.”

Little says he embraces the intent of the task force’s work — and an approach modeled after the 2013 K-12 task force. “The model of the Public Education Task Force was the right one for governing and reforming education. Further empowering the State Board and creating big structural changes throughout our education system requires the buy-in from all stakeholders, including parents, teachers, businesses, and community colleges, and the collaboration between the governor, the Legislature, the State Board, and the (state) superintendent.”

A.J. Balukoff

Balukoff: He says it’s too early to create a CEO position, but he supports spending one-time money on a study. “It doesn’t make sense to me to create a big new position in the university system before we’ve had a chance to see what kind of savings a consultant may find.”

Implementing the task force recommendations will be a “challenge,” but Balukoff says the state is not producing the skilled work force employers need. “I sincerely hope all of the recommendations help produce a new generation of Idahoans who have the valuable skills needed to fill all those good-paying jobs we’re leaving on the table.”

Paulette Jordan

Jordan: She thinks the state could save money by streamlining the higher education system, and supports a feasibility study. But she calls the CEO position “ill-defined.” “I cannot support a position until the vision is made clear and that vision is in line with the priority of serving our students.”

Jordan praises several of the recommendations from the task force — including an emphasis on early childhood education, expanding Idaho’s college and career adviser network and improved college and business partnerships. “We need to create an ecosystem where our universities and businesses work together to produce students that have Day One-ready skills, and also create entrepreneurial students that will see opportunities to add to our economy.”

Read more: Find additional campaign coverage on our Elections page.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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