UPDATED: Lawmakers question Ybarra’s engagement with Legislature

(UPDATED, 9:50 a.m., March 30 with reaction from Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.)

Key education lawmakers say they rarely met with state superintendent Sherri Ybarra during the 2018 legislative session, and that Ybarra’s lack of engagement hinders her effectiveness.

  • The co-chair of the joint budget committee said she met with Ybarra just once during the 80-day session.
  • The head of the House Education Committee said she met twice with Ybarra in person and a couple times over the phone.
  • One key legislator working on education budgets remembers just one meeting with Ybarra this session.
  • A key Democrat on House Education — and the only teacher serving in the Legislature — said he never met with Ybarra this year.
  • Several lawmakers have noted Ybarra’s assigned parking space is often empty during the legislative session.

“I think the superintendent needs to be at the Capitol more,” House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie VanOrden said. “I think she needs to come in the committee meetings a lot more. Maybe engage with us.”

Outside Ybarra’s inner circle, very little is known about her day-to-day work schedule.

  • She doesn’t make a detailed schedule publicly available, according to requests made by Idaho Education News.
  • Ybarra took time off in January. She took at least a week off in March, as education policy debates raged on and as the Legislature wrapped up an unpredictable 80-day session Wednesday.
  • Ybarra wasn’t around last week when the Senate voted on a second budget for her office. Lawmakers resurrected the budget to fund a statewide reading test, as Ybarra had requested.
  • Ybarra wasn’t around this week, as Gov. Butch Otter vetoed two different education bills.
  • Ybarra wasn’t around Tuesday for the Legislature’s interim school funding formula committee’s meeting. She sent a surrogate in her place. 

“If the worst somebody can say about me is they want more time with me, that’s a good thing,” Ybarra said in a written statement.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Kris Rodine said Ybarra “has met with numerous lawmakers this session and attended key meetings on issues including science standards, the budget, mastery, ESSA and rural schools.”

State records show House Education met 51 times this session. Ybarra attended fewer than 10 of those meetings.

Since the session started Jan. 8, VanOrden said she remembers meeting with Ybarra twice, to discuss science standards. There were a few phone calls, but little else. “That was probably about the only time,” VanOrden said.

Ybarra said she was “thrilled” with the session, that she served as a champion for education and helped push several policy and budget initiatives that will benefit schools.

“I come to work every day,” Ybarra said in a written statement. “This is not a 9-5 Monday through Friday job. I am constantly available and work countless evening and weekend hours. And I’m happy to do so.”

“One thing I learned early on in my career was to not wait until the session starts. These conversations are ongoing,” Ybarra said.

She pointed to her work meeting with the governor’s office, and her staff’s meetings with education groups over the summer to develop a budget proposal.

But when asked which specific lawmakers she works closest with, Ybarra didn’t name names.

“I would say there aren’t ones in particular, more than others (who I meet with),” Ybarra said. “You really have to touch base with everybody to make sure you’re moving forward and folks are crystal clear on the vision.”

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said she remembers meeting with Ybarra just once this session. Horman plays a leading role in writing and carrying the public school budgets. Horman also sponsored Ybarra’s first office budget, which failed on the House floor March 16. Horman said her interactions with Ybarra were rare, and personal discussions over budgets were even rarer.

Retiring Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said she remembers meeting with Ybarra once.

Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, a music teacher and House Education member, said he did not meet with Ybarra at all this year — although a couple of times they exchanged pleasantries.

Three House Republicans told Idaho Education News last week that they look for Ybarra’s car each morning inside a state parking garage. Only rarely do they see it in Ybarra’s assigned spot. One GOP legislator said Ybarra’s car is there so infrequently that lawmakers wonder if she was assigned a new spot in a different garage. Ybarra responded by pointing out she commutes from Mountain Home and suggested the legislators may simply be arriving before she gets to work. 

After this article was published Thursday, Sen. Shawn Keough, the other JFAC co-chair, wrote an email to EdNews reporter saying that she met with Ybarra several times during the session and finds Ybarra to be accessible. 

VanOrden and others pointed out that Duncan Robb, a contractor working as Ybarra’s chief policy adviser, attends nearly every education committee meeting and does a lot of the heavy lifting explaining policy proposals and engaging with legislators. But VanOrden said Ybarra’s lack of engagement, particularly in the House, hurts her.

As an example, VanOrden pointed to Ybarra’s failed proposal to launch a rural schools support network. Legislators had unanswered questions. They wanted to know how the center would work and operate, why schools and Ybarra’s SDE weren’t already partnering to share resources, how quickly the program would grow in future years and how much the program would ultimately cost.

In 2016 and 2017, the House passed the rural schools initiative, but the Senate ignored both bills. This year, the rural schools center failed in the House on a 20-48 vote. Ybarra had positioned it as her No. 1 legislative proposal. 

The day before the House killed her rural schools initiative, the Senate Education Committee killed another top Ybarra proposal — expanding the state’s mastery-based education pilot program.

“I would hope that (Ybarra) would be able to come and spend more time with us and be able to vet ideas through us,” VanOrden said. “Work together on some legislation. That is a good way for some of her legislation to get through.”

Ybarra said she had a great year.

“I am thrilled with how the session went,” Ybarra said in an interview last week. “We have another great budget for the fourth year. We fully funded the IRI (by expanding a piloted version of the statewide reading test). Nearly all of our rules and legislation passed. We have two significant school safety bills.”

Rep. Maxine Bell

Bell also gives Ybarra credit for evolving politically. Three years ago, Ybarra came across like a “deer in the headlights” during her short and sketchy budget presentation.

“She knew education, but I don’t think she knew how to present herself and how to work with the Legislature,” Bell said.

That is one area where Bell says Ybarra has improved. 

“Her presentation this year was excellent, it was professional, it was well thought out, but her (budget) numbers were higher than we could do,” Bell said.

Ybarra sought a 6.8 percent spending increase for schools. In the end, JFAC and Bell went with 6 percent.

But questions remain about how Ybarra makes use of her time on the job.

For two years, Idaho Ed News has requested an accounting of Ybarra’s public meetings, public appearances, meetings with education groups, meetings with legislators and public officials and campaign events.

Here is an example of her schedule, supplied by her staff:

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s public appearance schedule* for March 19-23

  • Monday
  • Tuesday: State Board of Land Commissioners Regular Meeting, 9 a.m. , Borah Building, 2nd Floor Courtroom, Room 214, 304 N. 8th St., Boise
  • Wednesday 
  • Thursday
  • Friday

* As House and Senate education committee schedules are set or changed, the Superintendent’s schedule may change.

In comparison, Gov. Butch Otter’s staff provided EdNews with a daily schedule that detailed meetings down to half-hour increments and listed who the governor met with, when and where the meetings were held, and the purpose of the meetings.

Last year, Ybarra’s staff put every daily House and Senate Education Committee meeting on the schedule. That seemed noteworthy at the time, because Ybarra told the House Education Committee in January 2017 that bolstering relationships with legislators was a priority.

“Loud and clear, one of our main goals this session is strengthening communication and continuing to build on that relationship,” Ybarra told lawmakers during the first House Education Committee meeting of 2017.

But Ybarra rarely attended those meetings and a spokesman said those meetings were calendar “placeholders.” Ybarra’s staff largely stopped putting the meetings on the schedule this session.

As an elected official, Ybarra’s salary is set in Idaho law. The law does not set vacation or paid time off hours for elected officials. Ybarra declined an Idaho Ed News request to account for her time off in 2017 and 2018.

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