Little’s State Board search: How it all unfolded (so far)

Shawn Keough and Brad Little confer during a break on the Senate floor during the 2016 legislative session. At the time, Keough was serving the 10th of her 11 Senate terms; Little was lieutenant governor, the Senate’s presiding officer.

The email, sent at 10:55 a.m. on Aug. 28, was succinct yet significant.

Greg Wilson, Gov. Brad Little’s education adviser, sent Shawn Keough a link — to a two-page electronic application form for a state appointment. “The application itself doesn’t need extensive detail (e.g., why do you want to serve, etc.),” Wilson wrote. “We just require some basic facts for the file.”

Greg Wilson

Within two hours, the former state senator and Sandpoint Republican emailed back her application. The next day, Keough sent a second short email to Wilson, this one with a resume attached. “Very glad a professor insisted I do this a couple of years ago!

“Hope this is what you were looking for. Do let me know if you have questions or concerns!”

Twenty-eight days later, Little named Keough to an influential and highly coveted seat on the State Board of Education. Should she receive Senate confirmation — a near-certainty, given her own Senate experience —  Keough will serve a five-year term on a volunteer body with far-reaching policymaking power in K-12 and higher education.

Since spring, Little has been considering two State Board vacancies, and one post remains unfilled. Much of the action — such as the August email exchange between Wilson and Keough — has transpired outside public view.

Idaho Education News submitted a public records request for emails to and from the governor’s office, pertaining to his State Board search. The governor’s office released some emails, and said others contained personnel records that are exempt from public disclosure. The emails that were released, 58 pages in all, weave a behind-the-scenes story that began weeks before Little publicly courted applicants.

April and May: early jockeying

On May 29, Little announced that longtime board members Don Soltman and Richard Westerberg planned to step down on June 30, at the end of their terms.

But even before the announcement, Little’s office began fielding resumes. The early applicants included Jim Hammond and John Goedde, two fellow North Idaho Republicans who served with Keough in the state Senate, and Bessie Katsilometes, a retired Idaho State University administrator.

Goedde and Wilson met on May 7. On May 9, Goedde emailed Wilson to say he was interested in a State Board post.

Rod Gramer

Meanwhile, Little’s office was receiving suggestions on possible board members. Idaho Business for Education CEO Rod Gramer emailed a list of several prospective candidates — one of at least three such emails from Gramer. That list included current Idaho National Laboratory director Mark Peters, retired INL director John Grossenbacher, and Sandy Patano, a longtime North Idaho aide to former Sen. Larry Craig.

May 29-June: the process picks up

Little’s May 29 announcement opened a formal process — and set what proved to be a nonbinding June 17 application deadline. Not surprisingly, this announcement led to a flurry of action behind the scenes.

On May 30, Gramer followed up on his original list, suggesting Bill Gilbert, a Boise business executive that Little had named co-chair of his “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” K-12 task force. A State Board appointment, wrote Gramer, “would put (Gilbert) in even a stronger position to align with Brad and the task force’s work.”

Terry Ryan

But Gramer wasn’t alone.

West Ada schools superintendent Mary Ann Ranells put in a plug for Dick Vester, an eye doctor in Wallace, who had served as a school trustee and the city’s mayor. Terry Ryan — the head of Bluum, a Boise school choice nonprofit — recommended Jim Smith, a former Salmon schools superintendent who co-founded the Upper Carmen Public Charter School in Lemhi County. Rep. Bill Goesling, a Moscow Republican and former State Board member, suggested a pair of local community leaders.

In an email sent June 18 — a day after the stated application deadline — prominent Coeur d’Alene business leader and developer Steve Meyer offered several suggestions. One was Goedde, although Meyer suggested the former Senate Education Committee chairman “might not be the change agent needed.” Also on Meyer’s list: Keough.

June 18: a public hiccup

On June 18, Little’s office released a list of 38 State Board applicants. The list included several names that had come up in the email traffic, such as Goedde, Vester and Smith, the Lemhi County schools executive.

Other names were absent. Gilbert didn’t apply. The prospects on Goesling’s short list didn’t apply. And Keough was not yet in the picture.

Two other names were missing from the June 18 list: Hammond and Katsilometes. That forced Wilson to make some apologies on behalf of the governor’s office. In emails to both applicants, Wilson said their names were omitted due to an oversight.

“Basically, anyone who applied before May 31 was not included in this list our (communciations) folks shared with Idaho Ed News,” Wilson said to Katsilometes.

In response to a separate records request from Idaho Education News, Little’s office released a longer list of 45 State Board applicants. Among the names on that longer list: Keough, Hammond and Katsilometes.

June-July: the politicking intensifies

Soltman and Westerberg live about as far apart as two Idahoans can. Soltman resides in Twin Lakes, on the North Idaho Panhandle. Westerberg lives in Preston, near Southeast Idaho’s border with Utah.

A governor is not obligated to pick State Board members from across Idaho. Except by tradition. And by politics: The board oversees a far-flung education system, in a state where parochialism is never too far beneath the surface of any policy debate.

The emails hardly mention Westerberg, and they don’t suggest a concerted push for a new board member for Southeast Idaho. For now, Westerberg remains on the board while Little seeks a successor. (Little has no set timeline, spokeswoman Marissa Morrison Hyer said Thursday.)

The politicking did center on Soltman’s board spot, and the quest for a North Idaho appointee.

On June 30, Gramer sent a third email with suggested nominees, focusing on IBE members from North Idaho. That list included Nathan Alford, publisher of the Lewiston Tribune, a paper with a long tradition of lambasting Idaho’s Republican hierarchy; and Brad Rice, a veteran Lewiston school trustee and an executive in an investment firm. “A great guy with kids in the school district,” Gramer said in an email to Wilson.

Mary Ann Ranells

Meanwhile, the letters of support rolled in. Goedde received recommendations from Soltman, North Idaho College President Rick MacLennan and Wanda Quinn, program development specialist for the University of Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene center. Vester’s supporters included Ranells, Wallace Junior/Senior High School Principal Chris Lund and Kermit Kiebert, a former state senator from the Panhandle.

“I know John to be honest, sincere, fair and above all else, committed to public education,” Soltman said of Goedde. “You need look no further than his resume to see his many years as a leader on education issues.”

“(Vester) is the epitome of a new metaphor for the role of state education leaders,” Ranells wrote. “He is not viewed as a distant, disengaged ‘ivory tower’ individual. Instead, he models deeply held beliefs, fosters collaboration and is mindful of results.”

July-August: The search takes shape

Rice never actually applied for a State Board position. But that didn’t stop Little from reaching out. In July, Soltman did some legwork, at Wilson’s request.

Don Soltman

“(I) gave him an honest answer on the time commitment, which was his only concern,” Soltman said in a July 11 email to Wilson. “He has three kids plus a growing client base. … I think he may be a better candidate in five to 10 years when the kids are more independent and he isn’t so concerned with growing his client base. Probably not what you want to hear.”

Little contacted Rice to gauge his interest, Hyer said, and Rice said he wasn’t interested in applying.

On July 26, Wilson and Vester discussed the State Board position.

On Aug. 21, Wilson again spoke to Goedde.

Somewhere along the way, and sometime before Aug. 28, Little turned to Keough.

“The governor’s office contacted Shawn Keough prior to her submitting an application to determine her interest in applying for one of the vacancies on the State Board of Education,” Hyer said.

September: A decision, and reactions

The ties between Little and Keough stretch back for years — long before Keough assumed a prominent role on the “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force. During Keough’s 22-year legislative career — and her 18 years on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee — the two served together, first as fellow state senators, and then when Little, as lieutenant governor, presided over the state Senate.

With his first opportunity to fill a State Board position, Little recruited and appointed a known quantity.

His selection won praise across the political spectrum.

Ryan, of Bluum, emailed Wilson to praise the pick. So did Ray Stark, an executive with the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. So did Wendy Jaquet, a former Idaho House minority leader who applied for a board spot in June but withdrew her name from consideration a month later. “Good choice!” Jaquet said in an email. “Makes me regret my decision.”

Vester also emailed Wilson. “From what I know of Shawn, she will be a very good board member. I hope to be considered for the second appointment.” (All applicants, including Vester and Goedde, remain under consideration, Hyer said Thursday.)

But on Sept. 26, hours after Keough’s appointment, Jennifer Ostyn of Twin Falls voiced her concerns. Her email didn’t specifically mention Keough, the executive director of the Coeur d’Alene-based Associated Logging Contractors. But Ostyn said governors have stacked the board with “drone workers for industry,” and posed several questions to Little.

“Educators have little to no interest in the policies put forward by this board because the people on it have no idea what it is to work in Idaho’s schools.” Ostyn wrote. “Aren’t these seats just filled with people who are friends or campaign contributors of yours and your predecessors?”

Evidently, Little’s office did not email back. No reply was included in the governor’s office’s response to Idaho Education News’ records request.

“It would have been included had we sent a response to Ms. Ostyn,” Hyer said.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News and Bluum are funded through grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

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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