School elections changes are dead for 2016

There won’t be any changes to Idaho school board elections — at least not this year.

On Monday afternoon, the Senate Education Committee killed two related elections bills. Senate Bill 1307 would have moved school trustee races onto the November general election ballot. Senate Bill 1308 would have required school board candidates to campaign across the entire school district.

The bills’ sponsors aligned behind a shared goal. They said they wanted to boost interest in school board elections — which are held in May, in odd-numbered calendar years, and are typically plagued by low voter turnout.

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Sen. Jim Rice

“Voter participation is of paramount important in elections,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, who sponsored SB 1307. “It is just as important as accuracy.”

But for elections officials, accuracy concerns were top of mind. was a primary concern to elections officials. School districts are carved up into small “zones” that are unique to trustee races. Because those boundaries are unique to school districts, it would be unmanageable for volunteer poll workers to juggle trustee races during a general election.

“What are we all here for? We’re here for the people,” said Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto. “I think they deserve to have faith in the system.”

Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association had her own concerns with SB 1307. She said it would be inappropriate to move nonpartisan school board elections onto a partisan ballot topped with races for president, governor, Congress and the Legislature.

Minutes before killing SB 1307, Senate Education voted down SB 1308 — which would have called for electing trustees across an entire school district. Candidates would still have to file to represent one of the district’s zones, but voters would have the chance to vote in all trustee races.

Mary Souza
Sen. Mary Souza

By keeping these zones intact, communities and neighborhoods would still have a local representative on the school board, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene Meanwhile, she said, districtwide races would increase turnout, since voters would have a voice in all board races. “People are very removed from the process.”

Echeverria spoke against this change as well, pointing out that trustees are unpaid officeholders who often run low-key grassroots elections. For many trustees and candidates, running a larger election is an alien concept. “We aren’t quite sure what problem this legislation is trying to solve.”

Monday’s committee action effectively tables elections reforms for 2016 — after considerable debate, and after no fewer than four proposals.

Last week, the Senate State Affairs Committee killed Souza’s bill to bring all candidates and ballot measures under the state’s campaign finance laws — including rural trustees’ candidates now exempt from the sunshine law. Last week, Sen. Chuck Winder said he was dropping a bill designed to prevent recalled school trustees from appointing like-minded replacements. Winder, R-Boise, said his bill was prompted by the ongoing West Ada recall saga.

In other Statehouse action Monday:

Civics. The House Education Committee faced a test Monday morning — a civics test.

Rep. Linden Bateman put a 25-question test at everyone’s committee seat. Chairman Rep. Reed DeMordaunt joked he would make everyone take the test — about Idaho government and history — for a grade.

“We should know these answers,” DeMordaunt said.

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Rep. Linden Bateman

Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, urged the committee to support adding questions about Idaho government and history to a civics test required for high school graduation. The committee unanimously approved moving the draft legislation to the second reading calendar.

The 2015 Legislature created a law that requires students to pass a civics test as a graduation requirement, beginning in  2016-17. Bateman’s legislation merely recommends the test have at least 20 percent of its questions relate to Idaho government and Idaho history.

Bateman’s list of recommended questions includes the following:

  • How many people live in Idaho?
  • How many legislative districts are in Idaho?
  • What is the Legislature’s largest expenditure?
  • What fraction of Idaho’s land is owned by the federal government?

If educators use the 100-question naturalization test given to those seeking U.S. citizenship, it would include only two questions about Idaho government and none about Idaho history.

“There’s not a single question relating to the Idaho Legislature — what does that tell you about what we think of ourselves?” Bateman said. “This will encourage teachers to touch on Idaho.”

Bateman asked lawmakers to support his idea this session because he will not be seeking re-election.

Broadband. With neither dissent nor fanfare, the Senate effective closed the books on the Idaho Education Network debacle.

The Senate unanimously passed two bills designed to help school districts secure high-speed Internet, in the aftermath of the statewide network.

Senate Bill 1333 would create the broadband Infrastructure Investment Grant fund, or BIIG, to help districts offset the cost of local broadband contracts. Senate Bill 1334 would create a state committee to help districts choose broadband vendors and apply for federally administered “e-rate” funds to offset system costs.

Both bills are the product of a legislative interim committee — formed in 2015, after a district judge voided the Idaho Education Network and legislators shut down the system.

After Monday’s 33-0 votes, both bills head to the House.

School improvement plans. House Education moved to the amending order a bill designed to clarify the contents of strategic plans school districts and charter schools must file.

A 2014 law requires schools to create and publicly post the continuous improvement plans. The State Board of Education House Bill 529 would require school plans to include “statewide student readiness and student improvement metrics.”

The bill required posting metrics for college and career readiness, high school readiness and fourth-grade readiness. Lawmakers voiced concerns the bill did not include improvement metrics for first- through third-graders. The bill was moved to the amending order so measurement requirements could be added for the lower grades.

State Board spokesman Blake Youde told the committee it would be relatively easy to add the language and “implementation will not be a problem” for districts and charters.

Continuous improvement plans are rooted in the 2013 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force.

Idaho Education News reporter Jennifer Swindell contributed to this report.