Lawmakers advance Ybarra’s rural school center bill

In keeping with tradition, the House Education Committee waited until late in the session to advance state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s rural schools bill, sending it off on an uncertain legislative journey Friday.

For the third consecutive year, Ybarra is pitching a proposal to create an optional rural schools support network. And, for the third consecutive year, it passed House Education at nearly the last minute. With Monday’s transmittal deadline looming, the rural schools bill may prove to be the final House bill that House Education considers this session before turning its attention to Senate bills and shutting down the committee process as floor work takes priority.

In each of the two previous years, the rural schools bill passed the House but never advanced in the Senate.

Once again, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee declined this year to provide the $300,000 in seed money that Ybarra requested through her office budget to get the program off the ground. However, if the bill gained support and passed the House floor and Senate, JFAC could pass a late-session “trailer bill” to provide funding.

The rural school’s center has become one of Ybarra’s top — and most elusive — legislative priorities. She said it is necessary to allow small, rural, geographically isolated school districts to pool their resources and realize cost savings.

Duncan Robb

As envisioned in House Bill 630, the rural schools support center would function as an opt-in cooperative, where school districts would need to purchase services a la carte from a menu that has yet to be developed.

Ybarra’s chief policy officer, Duncan Robb, handled the heavy lifting of pitching the proposal as Ybarra sat silently in committee and watched. Robb said the rural school center would be a “small, nimble” hub for coordinating resources.

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“The purpose of this… is to make it clear this network is all about its members,” Robb said. “It’s not about the state (government), it’s not about the State Department of Education. It’s about the member districts that make it up, and what they want to do.”

There are several examples of how the rural school center could work. School districts could opt in, and elect to pool their money to pay for a hard-to-fill position, such as a school psychologist, who could split time between multiple districts and save each district from having to fund a full-time position. Another example is districts could pool resources to hire a grant writer or someone who could fill out applications for federal e-rate dollars or Medicaid programs, and then reinvest the money they save back into the rural schools center.

The rural schools bill passed House Education with little vocal opposition, but only after legislators picked it apart for an hour and raised questions about why the bill is even necessary and what happens if the program is launched, funded and proves unsustainable.

State law already allows districts to enter cooperative agreements. And plenty of other education organizations offer training, support and resources on a regional basis. Some lawmakers wondered what is stopping Ybarra and the SDE from offering these types of services without creating a new level of government or program through a rural schools center.

“If we could do it before without legislation why do we need it now?” Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, asked. VanOrden was specifically referencing a program that benefited career-technical education, but relied on a similar, coordinated relationship.

The Idaho Rural Schools Association and Idaho School Boards Association urged passage of the rural schools center bill.

“There is a shortage of qualified personnel to fill all positions in the state of Idaho, especially for our rural school districts,” ISBA policy and government affairs director Quinn Perry said. “This is a step in the right direction so our districts and charters can pool resources and collaborate.”

HB 630 next heads to the House floor with a recommendation it pass.

House Education kills contract bill for teachers with interim certificate

After a lengthy debate, House Education Committee killed a bill Friday that has to do with contracts for teachers holding an interim or alternative certification.

Pushed by the Idaho School Boards Association, Senate Bill 1293 would have allowed school districts to only issue Category 1, standard one-year teaching contracts to educators holding an interim teaching certificate.

ISBA officials said the bill would have placed the accountability burden on the individual educators — not the school board — to ensure they were meeting all the requirements to earn a valid five-year teaching certificate. Then, if the teachers did not meet all requirements, it would be easy for the school district to not hire them again next year because they were only issued a nonrenewable, Category 1 contract.

ISBA Executive Director Karen Echeverria said the situation becomes complicated when such teachers do not meet the requirements to earn a full, valid teaching certificate within the allotted timeframe and then invoke their rights to a due process hearing.

“That forces the district and board to go through a full due process hearing, even though they could not hire (that individual) because they had no certification,” Echeverria.

The Idaho Education Association opposed the bill, and several legislators worried the bill sends the wrong message at a time when school districts struggle to fill some teaching positions and the list of teachers working under an alternative or interim certificate grows every year.

“There is a chilling message to this approach,” Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth said. “We need these people. I think (passing this bill) will really hurt our smaller districts.”

SB 1293 flew through the Senate on the strength of a 34-0 vote Feb. 22, but is now dead for the session.

School safety bill introduced

The House Ways and Means Committee voted Friday to introduce a new school safety bill.

Rep. Patrick McDonald, a Boise Republican and retired U.S. Marshal, is pushing the one-page bill.

The bill adds the phrase “electronic means” to an existing section of state law that addresses threats on school grounds. McDonald said that change is necessary in order to criminalize threats made online or via social media applications.

“A lot of damage is done on the internet right now,” McDonald said.

The bill also adds a new paragraph to state law that would make it a felony for anyone who has a firearm or modifies a firearm “in the furtherance of carrying out a threat made by word, electronic means or act to do violence to any person on school grounds or to disrupt the normal operations of an educational institution…”

The Idaho State Fraternal Order of Police backed the bill during a brief introductory hearing.

Legislators voted to introduce the bill and place it on a legislative fast track by sending it straight to the House’s second reading calendar. However, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, had several questions about the bill. He wondered if the word “willfully” should be inserted into the section of the bill addressing possessing or modifying a firearm “in furtherance of carrying out a threat.” He also wondered if legislators should add an emergency clause to the bill that would make it effective the moment it is signed into law, instead of July 1, when most new bills become law.

It was not immediately clear Friday if the bill would be sent out for amendments upon reaching the Senate, or if McDonald will return Monday with a rewritten version to address Moyle’s concerns.

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