Jeff Dillon, candidate for state superintendent

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment in our series of profiles of the candidates running for superintendent of public instruction in the May 15 primaries. The series continues daily through Thursday. Coming Tuesday: A closer look at Democratic candidate Allen Humble. 

Republican state superintendent candidate Jeff Dillon loves to tell the story of how he inherited a low-performing school, and then turned down federal funding earmarked to helping turn the school around.

Dillon, who is challenging GOP incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, tells that story because it deals with some of his favorite topics in education: leadership, local control, accountability and using data to drive decision-making.

In 2007, before he was promoted to his current job as Wilder’s school superintendent, Dillon was hired as principal of the district’s elementary school. The school was one of the lowest-performing in the state.

Dillon and his staff developed a turnaround plan and applied to the State Department of Education for federal school improvement money.

SDE officials told Dillon the district needed to revise the plan.

“They wanted us to purchase curriculum, a direct-instruction type of curriculum that we knew wasn’t best for kids,” he said. “And they didn’t like our approach to professional development.”

For Wilder and Dillon, the stakes were high. He said the grant would have been for up to $738,000.

“It was money that would be significant, but there were strings attached to it,” he said.

Too many strings for Dillon.

“My superintendent at the time turns to me and says, ‘Can you do this without the money?’” Dillon said.

Dillon turned down the money, and Wilder posted growth of 60 percent on key math and reading indicators over five years.

After that, the district rolled out a personalized learning, mastery-based program that allows students to move at their own pace, and only after they understand a concept.

As Wilder embraces this transition, test scores have faltered again. Based on the most recent data available, from 2016-17, 80 percent of Wilder Elementary School students did not meet math grade-level benchmarks.

Dillon doesn’t deny the slide, but he says Wilder is looking at a bigger picture.

“Our test scores aren’t very high,” said Dillon, emphasizing that Wilder is focused on a cultural shift rather than testing. “But we need to change something first. We need to change what happens in how to meet the needs of our kids. Our test scores will go where they need to go once we do that.”

A Wilder native

Dillon went to public school in Wilder before transferring down the road to the private Greenleaf Friends Academy. After graduating from Northwest College (now Northwest University), Dillon served in the ministry for 17 years.

He began his education career as a science teacher in Washington, before returning to Wilder. He was promoted to superintendent in 2012, after five years as elementary school principal.

Dillon has outlined several priorities he would pursue if elected:

  • Increasing school safety through a holistic approach that addresses bullying, mental health, counseling, communication and providing rural schools with resources and support. Dillon supports Idaho’s existing law that allows school districts to decide if they want to arm teachers. Dillon calls it the perfect use of local control, although he acknowledges many teachers and students are apprehensive about the idea.
  • Pushing new five- and 10-year plans for education, likely by forming another education task force and by pushing for more accurate and valid data analysis.
  • Expanding early childhood education opportunities for families — including launching a dialogue about preschool. Dillon stops short of endorsing full state pre-K funding.

“My No. 1 focus would be to really begin to get stakeholders together to look at a lot of things,” Dillon said. “I think we need a visionary plan for education.”

Tom Farley supports Dillon. Farley worked at the SDE for 20 years under state superintendents Jerry Evans, Anne Fox and Marilyn Howard; he has known Dillon for 10 years and worked on grant applications with him.

“Jeff has the vision and leadership skills and track record to do it,” said Farley.

For example, Farley pointed to Dillon’s implementation of mastery-based learning and his efforts to bring iPads, 3-D printers and an animation studio to rural Wilder.

“He’s a quality candidate,” said Farley, who adds he is endorsing Dillon without reservation. Should Dillon lose in the GOP primary, Farley said he would switch parties and endorse Democrat Cindy Wilson.

“I’ve been around too long to mince words,” Farley said.

Although Dillon would be a newcomer to elected office, he’s no stranger to the Legislature. Dillon chairs the Idaho Association of School Administrators’ legislative committee, and regularly works with lawmakers and advocates for issues that are important to administrators.

Executive Director Rob Winslow said Dillon approached IASA proactively with a desire to serve on the committee. He didn’t wait until he was recruited and he got involved well before he announced his run for office.

“That’s unusual,” said Winslow, adding that Dillon’s service on the legislative committee means he has already established a rapport with legislators and other school administrators.

Winslow said Dillon is very effective in that position, partially because he has experience as a building principal and district superintendent.

This is Dillon’s first campaign, and he’s balancing time between the campaign and working in Wilder. He hasn’t gone on the offensive, he hasn’t made a huge fundraising splash and he hasn’t gotten his name out through advertisements, yard signs, or high-profile endorsements.

“The other thing about Jeff is, I don’t know how much he’s been able to toot his own horn,” said Winslow, adding that he was surprised to learn Dillon has quietly published a national article on personalized learning and been sought out as a keynote speaker by the American Association of School Administrators.

More information about Dillon is available on his campaign website.

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Clark Corbin

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