Sherri Ybarra is a career educator and accomplished student. And that’s about all she likes to reveal publicly.
The Republican candidate for state superintendent of public instruction prefers to keep her personal life out the papers and keep the questions and answers focused on Idaho education.
“I’d rather not say,” Ybarra said repeatedly during a recent interview at a Mountain Home coffee shop. She denied a request to be interviewed at her home or her Mountain Home School District office.
She’s not a politician. Nor is she a name-dropper — she wouldn’t reveal the name of her campaign manager or treasurer, even though the latter position is public record. She won’t share a list of endorsements or supporters.
“I’m guilty of not being a polished politician,” she said.
But she stands at center stage running for one of Idaho’s most high-profile positions — leader of public education. Other than the governor, no other elected office has received more critique, criticism or scrutiny over the last five years than the one that oversees nearly half of the state budget and orchestrates education in Idaho.
“I’m very student-centered,” Ybarra said. “I tell people I’m running for three reasons: Kids. Kids. Kids.
“Now we’re done with this conversation.”
Who is Ybarra?
Ybarra married a military man and moved all over the country before landing in Mountain Home in 1996. She fell in love with the area and considers Idaho her home.
“Our roots are here. We aren’t going anywhere,” she said.
Ybarra would not share the name of her husband, though a family photo is on her website. She did say their teenage son attends public schools in Mountain Home. They are highly involved in their son’s baseball team — dad coaches — and the trio bowls every Sunday. “It’s dollar day,” Ybarra said.
Besides her family, Ybarra’s passion is furthering her education. She loves research.
“I’ve been a part-time student for 20 years,” she said.
Ybarra earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and a master’s in educational leadership. She also has an education specialist degree with an emphasis in superintendency. She expects to receive her doctorate this summer.
“It intrigues me studying what works and what doesn’t,” Ybarra said. “I know what we need to work on in Idaho.”
Ybarra says she’s a positive person and she expects a lot out of her employees.
“I work very, very hard and I wouldn’t ask my employees to do anything I wouldn’t do,” she said. “I’m a product of good leadership and mentoring. Now it’s my turn.”
Political newcomer, experienced educator
She’s not a politician, but her jump into politics didn’t surprise her friends and family.
When the news broke on Jan. 27 that Superintendent Tom Luna would not seek a third term, Ybarra said she heard an immediate question from her husband and her friends: “Is it time for you?”
She responded by registering as a Republican in Elmore County on Feb. 5 and announcing her candidacy a few days later.
“This job is less about politics and more about education,” Ybarra said.
Ybarra did not vote in the 2012 GOP primary, and she did not vote in November 2012, when Idahoans rejected Luna’s Propositions 1, 2 and 3. At a City Club of Boise forum Monday, she addressed that non-vote: “As a responsible Republican, I take responsibility for that flaw in judgment.” (Ybarra says she would have opposed the propositions.)
Ybarra’s work history is concentrated in one district.
She was a classroom teacher for 11 years, then vice principal and principal at West Elementary School. This is her first year working in the district office as federal programs director and curriculum director. She has never been a district superintendent and Mountain Home Superintendent Tim McMurtrey has an assistant, James Gilbert.
“But I’m the superintendent’s right-hand woman,” she said. “I’m a certified superintendent and I’ve done all the jobs. I have the education and the experience to back it up.”
McMurtrey called Ybarra a “fireball” and said “she’s done a lot for us this year. She’s a very hard worker.”
She was named Mountain Home’s educator of the year twice and helped turn West Elementary into a four-star school under Idaho’s five-star rating system. She said she would be interested in leading a district, but chose to enter the race for state superintendent.
“My performance speaks for itself after two decades in the field,” Ybarra said. “This has been a goal of mine for a couple of years and I’m ready — I’m prepared.”
How would Ybarra lead Idaho education?
Ybarra doesn’t share a lot of details about how she would run the State Department of Education. Her answers generally circle back to one mantra: “I’ll do what’s best for kids.”
She said she favors school choice “if that’s what best for students,” and she wants the money to flow into K-12 education before adding on pre-kindergarten programs.
She supports Idaho Core Standards but is unsure about the tests aligned to the standards.
“We need to slow down a little bit because there are so many questions still out there,” she said. “I would make recommendations to the Legislature and the State Board of Education to decrease the amount of testing, and work to build a transitional accountability system that aligns with the Idaho Common Core.”
She said she would work well with the public and all stakeholders and maintain an open line of communication. She said she’s talked to many people on the campaign trail, including politicians and education leaders, but she doesn’t name her connections.
“Sometimes name recognition isn’t everything,” she said. “The question is: Are you an effective leader? I am.”
Mountain Home parent Olga Vega agrees and was impressed by Ybarra’s leadership at West Elementary.
“She did her job and she did it well,” Vega said. “She’s a go-getter.”
Vega’s child has special needs and she said Ybarra did everything she could to help the child succeed by attending meetings, reviewing tests and responding quickly.
“I get extremely attached to the students and that’s what drives me,” Ybarra said.