EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of our series of profiles of the candidates running for superintendent of public instruction in the May 15 primaries.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra knows voters will be conducting her job evaluation on May 15.
And if she passes, she will have another evaluation waiting in November.
Ybarra, the Republican schools chief from Mountain Home, is running for a second term. She squares off against Wilder district Superintendent Jeff Dillon in the May 15 GOP primary, with the winner facing the Democratic nominee in the general election.
Ybarra says she’s thrilled with her first term in office and is running for re-election to push for school safety, elevate the teaching profession, finish the work of implementing task force recommendations and increase state K-12 funding.
“While voters are giving me my four-year evaluation, consider the fact our kids deserve stability,” Ybarra said. “With all the changes that have been coming, with me as state superintendent, (stability) is what they get, someone who comes with over 20 years of education experience and enjoys serving the public.”
In May 2014, Ybarra emerged from a wide-open Republican primary as a relative unknown in political circles, and won a close general election in November. Although she had no political experience and ran an uneven campaign, Ybarra brought a career’s worth of education experience to the race and positioned herself as an educator first, not a politician.
It all started in the second grade
Since attending second grade in West Virginia, Ybarra has dreamed of being a teacher, like her role model and favorite teacher, Mrs. Gatts.
“She inspired me to want to be a teacher,” Ybarra said. “All through my education career, everybody knew that I wanted to be a teacher.”
Ybarra was the first member of her family to graduate college. She was the daughter of a coal miner, Danny, and a stay-at-home mom, Margaret.
Each night at the dinner table Danny told Ybarra and her sisters that he only earned a high school diploma and that life as a coal miner was a difficult, hard way to pay the bills.
“He said, ‘I wish I had gone to college, and I want better for my kids,’” Ybarra said.
Ybarra took the lesson to heart, so much so that she jokes she never stopped going to school.
Ybarra earned a bachelor’s degree from West Liberty University in West Virginia, and has earned a master’s degree and education specialist degree from University of Idaho.
She began her student teaching career in West Virginia, serving alongside her old third-grade teacher, Ms. Nadolski, another favorite of Ybarra’s. After moving to Idaho, Ybarra worked as a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and federal programs director in the Mountain Home School District.
An emphasis on changing the tone
Ybarra is most proud of working with the Legislature to raise teacher pay and increase public school funding by more than $100 million per year.
Ybarra also prides herself on being a positive person and looking past the critics. Often when she speaks to educators, be it at a State Department of Education post-legislative session roadshow or an academic conference, Ybarra empathizes that she can relate to teachers. She has walked in their shoes, she says. She knows what it is like to be inspired by a roomful of students. In many of these meetings, Ybarra makes sure to thank educators for their service, telling them teaching is a noble profession and that she realizes salaries can be low and “nobody woke up in the morning and decided to be a teacher to get rich.”
During these same meetings, Ybarra urges teachers to ignore news coverage that is critical of education and brush off the “Don’t Fail Idaho” advocacy ad campaign.
Madison School District Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas, the 2015 Idaho Association of School Administrators superintendent of the year, said Ybarra’s optimism and support of educators has brought a cultural change.
“The thing I like best, perhaps, is she is always, consistently positive and upbeat and encouraging to other teachers and educators,” Thomas said. “She speaks highly of the profession and she encourages us. That’s such a change from the doom and gloom.”
Ybarra’s chief deputy, Pete Koehler, said he delayed his retirement plans to serve in Ybarra’s administration to push for this exact change in tone.
“Most of the reason I came on to support the superintendent was to rebuild that trust between educators and the State Department of Education. That was a primary goal of hers. That’s how we reach children, and that has been accomplished, in my opinion.”
Transparency and data
Perhaps it’s through those same rose-colored glasses that Ybarra views academic metrics that others might view in a more measured manner.
For weeks, Ybarra has been congratulating educators and bragging to voters about an increase in the state’s high school graduation rate. Ybarra calls the increase “a smidge or a smooch,” but doesn’t say it’s essentially flat. The percentage of graduates inched upward from 79.66 percent to 79.67 percent between 2016 and 2017 — equal to about two students. The grad rate still lags below the national average. Meanwhile, Idaho policymakers have set an ambitious goal of increasing the rate to 95 percent.
Ybarra has also established a trend of making decisions that go against government transparency.
- She sat on a taxpayer-funded, outside desk review that was critical of teacher evaluations for months and only released it after Idaho Education News obtained it through a public records request and published it first.
- Until reversing course this week, her red tape committee was meeting in secret as it formed recommendations on hot-button issues such as accountability, teacher evaluations and literacy plans.
- She told the House Education Committee in March that she engaged with education groups “every step of the way” while drafting the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. However, leaders of two prominent education groups wrote a letter to Gov. Butch Otter in 2017 saying they felt disrespected because they were not consulted.
Although Ybarra said she made mistakes with the desk review documents, she chooses to look ahead rather than dwell on mistakes.
Looking forward, she already has plans for a second term. She promises to push a $20 million school safety campaign and continue her efforts to combat bullying in schools. Ybarra also plans to renew her campaign to launch a cooperative rural schools center, despite the fact the Legislature has rejected the proposal with increasing opposition in each of the past three years.
Disclosure: The “Don’t Fail Idaho” advocacy campaign is funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which also funds Idaho Education News.
Know before you vote
Visit www.idahovotes.gov to double check whether you are registered to vote and the location of your polling place.
In case you missed it
Click here to read our profile of Republican state superintendent candidate Jeff Dillon.
Click here to read our profile of Democratic state superintendent candidate Allen Humble.
Click here to read our profile of Democratic state superintendent candidate Cindy Wilson.