Koehler extends tenure as Ybarra’s chief deputy

Pete Koehler will extend his stay as the state’s No. 2 education official behind Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.

Pete Koehler
Pete Koehler

Koehler, who has served as Ybarra’s interim chief deputy since Jan. 5, decided Tuesday to continue with the State Department of Education through the end of the calendar year, department spokesman Jeff Church confirmed.

During a 30-minute interview in his Boise office Thursday, Koehler explained that his decision was based in his confidence in Ybarra’s vision and a sense of duty to wrap up unfinished business.

“There was a sense of guilt I was feeling that it was kind of like being in a hot landing zone and walking away and leaving others to finish the job,” Koehler said, using a military analogy. “I have an obligation to get some things, if not wrapped up, very securely moving in the direction in the interest of children.”

In order to comply with Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho retirement regulations, Koehler said he will need to take a hiatus from the department in June, then return to work in July.

Koehler came out of retirement to help Ybarra lead the department. Originally, he told Idaho Education News that he planned to hold his current post until May or June, and then re-retire.

Koehler, a former Nampa High School principal, was promoted to Nampa’s interim superintendent in May 2013 to help the state’s third-largest school district emerge from a financial crisis.

After helping Nampa officials return to more solid financial footing, Koehler initially retired.

However, Ybarra approached Koehler about working in her administration after her election in November. Koehler said he loved retirement, but signed on because he shared Ybarra’s vision that the department would operate “as an instrument of service for school districts.”

Koehler identified a handful of key projects he plans to work on through the remainder of the year:

  • Working with a committee to assess and review Idaho Core Standards in math and English language arts.
  • Reviewing state assessments, including the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced.
  • Helping facilitate a pilot project for a mastery-based system of education, where students advance based on knowledge of a subject, and not simply finishing an academic year in a classroom. Mastery-based learning was among the 2013 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.
  • Working to review and improve the state’s system and methods of teacher evaluation.

For Koehler, a big part of his job has been working to earn districts’ trust during the recently completed legislative session.

He listed several high points from the session: reversing recession-era cuts in district operational funding (sometimes called discretionary spending); working to remove burdensome state data reporting requirements; and passing the $125.5 million teacher career ladder. However, he said, the career ladder will require tweaks and continued funding.

“The school districts have truly been pleasantly surprised coming out of the post-legislative tour,” he said. “Statements that were made months ago (by Ybarra) really are being brought to fruition.

“We are walking the talk that we really are trying to become a service-focused organization and be an absolute asset to both charters and school districts in the education of children, rather than an instrument simply of compliance or one-size-fits-all.”

Koehler, Ybarra and the rest of the executive team endured a trial by fire, with the session kicking off the week after Ybarra was sworn in. Koehler said the team approached the session with “eyes wide open.”

He conceded the process left him exhausted at times, and that Ybarra and her top officials were neophytes when it came to dealing with the Legislature. Perhaps the biggest turning point came with District Judge Patrick Owen’s ruling voiding the Idaho Education Network broadband contract. The Legislature wrested control of the project from the Department of Administration and giving it to Ybarra’s State Department of Education.

“The broadband crisis either makes or breaks us,” Koehler said. “This one helped solidify very quickly where we were going to help and we demonstrated that to a number of people, who I think had their doubts.”

If Koehler follows through with his new intentions, he won’t be on staff for the 2016 legislative session. But he believes Ybarra and her team will be much stronger by then.

“In the end, all of us grew in our experience from that,” Koehler said. “Some of the earlier baby steps, we are not going to have to do those again next year. We will be in a much better position in terms of experience.”

 Further reading: Reporter Kevin Richert breaks Ybarra’s first legislative session in detail