BOISE — The largest gathering of Idaho school officials kicked off Wednesday.
More than 500 school board trustees and superintendents flocked to the first day of the Idaho School Boards Association’s annual convention at the Boise Centre, where organizers and speakers reassured officials of their work after a year of pushback for many.
School board trustees dealt with masks, remote learning, COVID-19 transmission and the fiscal impacts of the pandemic, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra told a packed crowd of local officials during the first day of the three-day event. That’s all for the unpaid, volunteer positions on school boards that trustees often do in addition to their day jobs.
“And it’s also a time when divisiveness within and resignation from our school boards are at an all-time high,” Ybarra said. “Without your commitment, your diligence, your hard work, your early morning meetings and your late nights and the ability to withstand some very spirited debates, our students will not have the support that they need to dream to lead and to achieve.”
Before the speech, ISBA President Jody Hendrickx told Idaho Education News that it’s still rough for many trustees. It’s hard to please everyone, he said, when you’re debating polarized issues like masks. No matter what you do, someone will be upset.
“It’s concerning moving forward because — like last year, no one has went through a situation like this before,” Hendrickx said. “So, you know, it’s just step by step.”
The conference required masks, but let people opt out by testing negative for COVID-19 in a same day rapid test. By Monday afternoon, 235 people tested out of the mask requirement, said Catherine Bates, ISBA program and communications manager. Many attendees did not wear masks.
Cleon Chapman, a newly elected trustee in the Blackfoot School District, said he enjoyed the keynote speech and that the conference has so far been an uplifting experience, in spite of a tough couple of years and heated round of trustee elections earlier this month.
So far, messages have revolved around focusing on the kids, he said. “That’s who we’re here for.”
Louis Pipher, a 20-year trustee now on the Meridian Medical Arts Charter School, said it’s still early in the convention, but pointed to an agenda full of workshops and events relevant for some tumultuous times for trustees over the course of the pandemic.
“There’s useful information every year,” he said.
Madison School District board chair Kevin Howell, who has served for 20 years, said he’s still getting a feel for the event, less than one day in. Still, he’s excited to be back. Last year’s conference was virtual due to the pandemic. Howell doesn’t consider himself a “tech person” and he isn’t a fan of communicating through masks.
“It’s good. Hopefully things get back to semi-normal soon,” Howell said.
Legislative preview, federal pushback
On student success, Ybarra stressed recent state reading test scores that showed kindergartners fell behind while first- through third-graders excelled, making up for lost ground during the first year of the pandemic. She committed to requesting $39 million from state legislators next legislative session to provide optional all-day kindergarten for at-risk students.
“You have an incoming group compared to last year’s kindergartners are not where they need to be. And actually what I saw out in the classrooms, I saw second graders are actually first graders and first graders are actually kindergarteners,” Ybarra said.
Ybarra also revealed that she sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland last month, pushing back on his call for reporting threats against school board trustees. Ybarra wrote in her Oct. 26 letter to Garland that he had directed Boise-based Federal Bureau of Investigation agents to interview her and other education leaders “about whether parents here are engaging in such conduct” in a way that violates federal law.
“I am saddened that you ‘threw gasoline’ on already heated and divided communities, by conducting federal level interviews based on ONE mischaracterization from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) about all local school board meetings across our nation,” Ybarra wrote in the letter, which EdNews obtained Wednesday. “Calling parents ‘domestic terrorists,’ was inflammatory, inappropriate, and unfounded. We WANT parents and patron engaged in our public schools – we have sought their involvement for years. Research shows that active parent involvement is the single best predictor of student success.”
NSBA has since apologized for the wording of its request in late September that federal law enforcement crack down on members of the public who harass or intimidate school board members.