New filings in Ybarra lawsuit detail a Statehouse power struggle

Citing Idaho’s territorial constitution — and weaving a tale of behind-the-scenes palace intrigue in 2020 — state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s team upped the ante in a legal battle with the Legislature and the State Board of Education.

Ybarra and her attorney argued that moving 18 IT and data management jobs from her department would undercut day-to-day operations. Ybarra again called the division the “nerve center” of her 140-person department.

And in written statements to the Idaho Supreme Court, Ybarra and legislative liaison Marilyn Whitney suggested a darker agenda. They said some lawmakers want to eliminate the elected superintendent of public instruction’s post entirely — a move that would require a constitutional amendment. Failing that, Ybarra said, these legislators went after the IT and data management jobs as a first step toward weakening the department.

Friday’s filings represent the latest counterattack in a turf war that broke out in March. In the waning days of the 2020 session, lawmakers voted to transfer the 18 full-time positions from Ybarra’s State Department of Education to the State Board of Education. The move also shifted $2.7 million from SDE to the State Board.

Blindsided by the proposal, and stymied in her attempts to stop the shift, Ybarra sued the Legislature and the State Board. The Idaho Supreme Court is likely to act on the April 24 lawsuit within a matter of weeks, since the transfer of jobs and funding is scheduled to take place on July 1.

Friday’s juiciest claims came from Ybarra and Whitney, who turned in timelines detailing their conversations with legislators this winter. Over the course of the session, Ybarra and Whitney first heard rumors of plans to make the state superintendent’s job an appointed post, then heard rumors of the move to shift jobs away from SDE.

Whitney also corroborated Ybarra’s claim of political payback. She said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, was pushing for the transfer, because Ybarra in 2019 opposed a school funding formula rewrite bill supported by lawmakers.

In a sworn statement last week, Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Wendy Horman said the claim of political payback was baseless. Like Crabtree, Horman supported the transfer. The two legislative budget-writers said the intention was to combine SDE’s K-12 data management functions with similar State Board responsibilities in the higher education arena.

David Leroy

In his filing, Ybarra’s attorney appealed to the Supreme Court to preserve the authority of an elected state superintendent — and preserve parents’ voice in education policy.

“The strongest and most direct communication for each of those parents to influence and encourage such policy is their vote to elect a forceful and effective Superintendent of Public Instruction each four years,” wrote David Leroy, the former attorney general and lieutenant governor hired to represent Ybarra.

The legal arguments could still boil down to the superintendent’s constitutional power — and how the Supreme Court chooses to interpret it.

Attorneys for the State Board and the Legislature say the state’s Constitution assigns the board the “general supervision of the state educational institutions and public school system of the state of Idaho.” Leroy argues that the territorial Constitution invests those powers with the superintendent — and suggests that it’s time for the Supreme Court to settle the matter.

“Such a definition has been needed since 1889,” Leroy wrote.

And Leroy’s filings included another curious attachment, one that backs up his claim that the constitutional question is murky.

“There are good arguments on both sides of the issue, and little guidance,” Leslie M. Hayes wrote in a March 16 letter to Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, chairman of the House Education Committee.

It’s an intriguing citation, since Hayes works as a deputy attorney general. Leroy and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office are courtroom adversaries; Wasden’s office is representing the State Board.

Friday’s filings represent Leroy’s formal response to briefs filed last week on behalf of the State Board and the Legislature.

The documents now on file, the action will move to the courtroom. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments, via Zoom, on June 5.

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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