Lanza yanked from task force work

(UPDATED, 4:18 p.m., with Otter quotes, details on working committees.)

A member of Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force has been excluded from the group’s followup work — because he is now working for one of Otter’s election-year opponents.

Mike Lanza
Mike Lanza

Mike Lanza — a paid member of Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff’s campaign staff — says he was told Monday that he had been pulled from one of the task force’s followup committees. The call came from Richard Westerberg, a member of the State Board of Education and the chairman of the original, 31-member task force that met in 2013.

Westerberg, like all State Board members, was appointed by Otter, a Republican.

“(Westerberg) said he didn’t want to ‘take the risk’ of having someone involved with a political campaign on the panel,” Lanza said Wednesday. “I asked him what exactly he saw as the risk. He gave me no further explanation, despite me pressing him to explain exactly what the ‘risk’ was.”

Richard Westerberg
Richard Westerberg

Westerberg wasn’t available for comment Wednesday morning. But State Board spokeswoman Marilyn Whitney confirmed that Westerberg considered Lanza a possible distraction, since he is working on Balukoff’s campaign.

“(He) felt it was problematic,” Whitney said Wednesday.

Whitney said Idaho Parents and Teachers Together — the group Lanza co-founded to spearhead the 2012 repeal of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 — could still have a member on a task force followup panel, if it so chooses.

At issue was a seat on a followup “structure and governance” committee that will work on the details of a host of the task force’s 20 recommendations. Among other items, the committee will work on measuring student progress by subject mastery, rather than classroom seat time — and rework the state’s school funding formula to tie it to enrollment, rather than average daily attendance.

Lanza says he was invited to sit on this panel in early March. On March 14, he joined the Balukoff campaign as communications director and education adviser. It is a paid contract position, although Lanza declined to provide his salary or fee.

Two of the State Board’s followup committees will meet for the first time on Monday: the structure and governance committee and another committee focusing on a teacher career ladder and tiered teacher licensure. A third committee is still in the works, focusing on reading proficiency and literacy.

The new committees will not exactly mirror the original task force, which completed its work in August, Whitney said. The committees include some original task force members and some newcomers.

The roster of committee members, provided by Whitney Wednesday, does not lack for political figures. Nine legislators, Republican and Democrat, sit on the committees; all nine are seeking re-election in 2014. Outgoing state superintendent Tom Luna sits on both committees. Four other State Board members are involved, as voting members or as ex officio committee members; Otter staffer Roger Brown sits on both panels, in an ex officio role.

Lanza, meanwhile, believes his ouster was driven by election-year politics.

“I can only see this as Gov. Otter’s retribution for me working for his opponent,” he said. “This strikes me as symptomatic of exactly what’s wrong with state government in Idaho: Too many of those in power deliberately exclude people with opinions that conflict with their own opinions.”

Said Otter, in a prepared statement Wednesday:  “The governor and the board expressed concern that the task force should not be used as a political platform. We believe politics should be kept out of this process.

“Mr. Lanza’s organization can still have a seat at the table. We have asked him to provide a replacement.”

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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