Observers: Ybarra recovered from rocky start to session

(UPDATED, 5:43 a.m. Thursday, with comparisons of state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s budget request and former state superintendent Tom Luna’s initial request.)

On Jan. 29, new state superintendent Sherri Ybarra surprised pundits — and seemed to take lawmakers aback — with a brief and sketchy budget presentation that raised more questions than it answered.

On Feb. 27, Ybarra chief technology officer Will Goodman appeared before the same Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to update lawmakers on the transition away from the defunct Idaho Education Network broadband project. Goodman drew bipartisan praise from JFAC members who were relieved to hear schools had secured high-speed Internet with little disruption.

Sherri Ybarra
State superintendent Sherri Ybarra discusses Idaho’s No Child Left Behind waiver during a March 30 House Education Committee meeting.

The two presentations represent the highs and lows of Ybarra’s first legislative session. They also reflect the challenges of transition. Ybarra inherited her first-year budget proposal from her predecessor, Tom Luna. The Idaho Education Network debacle was inherited as well. Ybarra also walked into the middle of the protracted haggling over a teacher career ladder.

Those realities affect the way key observers assess Ybarra’s first session. For example, House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt praises the way his fellow Republican “evolved” and grew into the job over her first three months. Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr points to the “mighty job” facing a new superintendent: dealing with the Legislature, while learning the intricacies of the state’s largest budget.

A budget brouhaha

On Jan. 12, a week into the job, Ybarra found herself on the short side of a $14 million debate over public school funding. That was the gap between her budget request and the proposal presented by GOP Gov. Butch Otter.

The discrepancy surprised Statehouse observers because it went against the norm. Most years, state superintendents push for a more robust K-12 budget, and governors and legislators scale back the request.

Ybarra’s bottom-line request — an $87.1 million general fund increase for K-12, compared to the $101.1 million increase proposed by Otter — adhered to the budget Luna drafted in September. However, Ybarra’s request was lower than Luna’s final budget request, which called for a $94.4 million increase.

“Whoever takes that position is going to walk in to someone else’s budget,” Ybarra said Tuesday. “I’m not surprised that folks assumed that it was my budget.”

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Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert

That didn’t shield Ybarra from second-guessing. Cyr said she urged Ybarra to boost her request, but Ybarra did not. The criticism wasn’t fair, JFAC co-chairman Sen. Dean Cameron said at the time, since the budget wasn’t Ybarra’s.

The new superintendent took even more heat for her Jan. 29 budget presentation, which consisted of 17 minutes of prepared comments and about an hour of question-and-answer. The abbreviated discussion left JFAC members with an unexpected 90-minute hole in their schedule — and scrambling for details.

“It’s official: She doesn’t have a clue,” the Twin Falls Times-News wrote in a scathing editorial. “It takes more than 17 minutes to make a decent hamburger.”

Ybarra says her future budget presentations will be more detailed, as they reflect her initiatives. Rob Winslow, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, also believes the Jan. 29 presentation was an outlier. “I would expect that would improve.”

The broadband bailout

Within a week, other Statehouse events had overshadowed Ybarra’s showing at JFAC. Lawmakers were again scrambling to find a way to keep broadband in the state’s high schools.

On Feb. 11, District Judge Patrick Owen reaffirmed his decision voiding the Idaho Education Network contract. The clock began ticking: With no state contract in place, and a statewide network in mothballs, schools had about two weeks to secure their own high-speed Internet.

That’s where Ybarra’s staff entered the picture.

The Legislature rushed to pass a $3.6 million broadband bailout, to reimburse districts for local broadband contracts. In a procedural twist, Ybarra’s staff was assigned to review the local contracts and parcel out the money — in part, because lawmakers wanted to make a break from the Department of Administration, which had overseen the Idaho Education Network contract.

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Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

Goodman was Ybarra’s point man on the transition. Through a procession of webinars and one-on-one discussions, the department talked districts through the on-the-fly procurement process. By March, the results were startling. Districts had secured 59 percent more bandwidth locally, and for $1.2 million less than the costs under the Idaho Education Network contract — a 37 percent reduction.

Ybarra’s team repeatedly preaches the importance of local control — and on broadband, district officials were also pleased with the outcome, Winslow said. And in the Statehouse, the broadband bailout was a step in a turnaround.

“She bounced back strong,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a JFAC member and an early supporter of Ybarra’s 2014 campaign.

The career ladder

While the broadband brinksmanship played out on the Statehouse’s public stage, closed-door negotiations on the career ladder unfolded over several weeks.

Ybarra did not get what she wanted. She advocated for a career ladder pilot program — in contrast to Otter, who wanted the plan rolled out immediately. She had a pilot bill drafted, but it was never heard in either education committee.

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Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise

But while Ybarra’s bill gained little traction, neither did the first career proposal introduced in DeMordaunt’s committee. Teachers widely panned the bill during a five-hour public hearing. And Ybarra deserves credit for advocating behind the scenes for a career ladder law that teachers could support, said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

“I was pleasantly surprised with the way she stood up for teachers,” said Ward-Engelking, a retired teacher. “I think we would have had another Luna law on our hands.”

While Ybarra voiced support for the new career ladder law at an April 2 bill signing, she said this week that she still preferred a pilot. However, she says she got three key concessions in the bill that became law: lawmakers funded 3 percent pay raises for administrators and classified staff; put more money into salaries for “residency” teachers at the first rung of the ladder; and they gave the department jurisdiction over the ladder’s teacher evaluation component.

Implementation of the career ladder now falls to Ybarra’s staff — largely through a series of administrative rules that will likely be presented to the 2016 Legislature. Cyr is optimistic about the prospects; Ybarra has promised a negotiated rule-making process, with IEA at the table.

A defining waiver

For the most part, Ybarra stayed quiet during the 2015 session. She was a regular attendee at Senate and House education committee meetings. But when it came time for the department to testify on legislation, that role fell to former state Sen. Tim Corder, Ybarra’s legislative liaison, or to Pete Koehler, the former Nampa school superintendent serving as her interim chief deputy.

One notable exception: Ybarra addressed both committees to discuss the state’s effort to rewrite its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Idaho is among a handful of states still working on its rewrite, Education Week reported earlier this month.

Ybarra drew praise from House Education members after her March 30 presentation — which she used to outline a waiver application much unlike the one drafted by her predecessor.

Penni Cyr
Penni Cyr, president, Idaho Education Association

Gone are all references to Students Come First — the Luna education overhauls rejected by voters in 2012. Luna’s five-star school rating system is gone as well. Also deleted: any references to Schoolnet, Luna’s ill-fated attempt to install a statewide instructional management system. A recent report panned the state for sinking $61 million of public and private money into Schoolnet, and Koehler and Corder have been particularly pointed in their comments about the system.

Ybarra doesn’t duck away from the significance of the waiver. She recognizes it as a chance to define Idaho’s K-12 system on her terms. “It couldn’t have happened at a better time for the State Department (of Education) to shift gears.”

The tone isn’t lost on Cyr, one of Luna’s most prominent adversaries. “What we see her doing is scrubbing Luna out of the picture.”

Disclosure: Schoolnet was funded in part by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which also funds Idaho Education News.

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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