Lawmakers grilled Boise State University President Marlene Tromp over a laundry list of budget items Tuesday.
And in most cases, legislative budget-writers didn’t get the answers they were looking for.
The tense exchanges came as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee began its job of digging into the higher education budget proposals. And the hearing underscored ongoing tensions between Tromp and Statehouse conservatives — who have been openly critical of Tromp, and what they see as a growing social justice agenda at the state’s largest four-year school.
After her presentation, Tromp declined to speculate on how the legislative blowback might affect the fate of the higher education budget. But after spending much of Tuesday promising to send detailed responses to visibly skeptical JFAC members, Tromp acknowledged that Boise State has some homework to do.
“We will gladly answer any questions our legislators have,” Tromp said.
Among Tuesday’s unanswered questions, posed largely by Republicans on the committee:
Student fees. Rep. Wendy Horman wanted more details about Boise State’s student fee hike — a $304 increase that will generate some $4.9 million. “I think some of us were very caught off-guard,” said Horman, R-Idaho Falls, JFAC’s House co-chair. “That was a massive increase.”
Tromp said that some of the money went to support remote learning, and reiterated that some of the money went for expanded mental health services — a fee increase supported by students.
Horman followed up with a question about the role elected student leaders play in the fee-setting process. “If they make a recommendation, are you obligated to follow them?”
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Tromp said.
Last year’s $4 million. The 2022 higher education budget included a $4 million line item for Boise State, taken from budget reserves. Tromp said the money went into several areas, including student advising, and promised to provide lawmakers with a more detailed breakdown.
Public radio — and speakers’ fees. Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, asked how much the university provides to Boise State Public Radio; Jo Ellen DiNucci, Boise State’s associate vice president for finance and administration, promised to get back to him with numbers. Citing a recent MLK Living Legacy Celebration event featuring author Ibram Kendi, Herndon also requested a spreadsheet outlining Boise State’s speakers’ fees. “Of course, I would be happy to provide that,” Tromp said.
Risk management and replacement items. Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, drilled down on two line items in Gov. Brad Little’s higher ed budget recommendation: A $1 million increase in risk management costs, and $2.2 million for vehicles and other replacement items. “How many vehicles are you trying to purchase, and what are we actually doing with that money?” Tromp promised to follow up with a more detailed analysis.
A new vice provost. In two rounds of questions, Nampa Republican Sen. Ben Adams tried to pin Boise State down on the cost — and the need — for a new vice provost for inclusion and belonging.
Provost John Buckwalter said the position is designed to support new students — especially rural students who might be adjusting to living in a dorm with more classmates than their hometowns have residents. But he declined to provide a salary range for the as-yet unfilled position.
Adams repeatedly claimed Boise State has 28 employees in diversity, equity and inclusion, and sought a ballpark estimate for their salaries. Boise State officials declined to answer.
“I don’t have any idea what that refers to,” Tromp said after her presentation.
Following JFAC’s meeting, Adams said he wants Boise State to create a welcoming environment for its students. But he’s concerned that these efforts won’t be effective if they are pushed through the “lens” of DEI.
Adams said he arrived at his numbers — 58 DEI positions across the higher ed system, and 28 at Boise State — through research with a Senate staffer. He said he has offered to share his research with University of Idaho and Boise State officials.
“They sounded unsure about a lot of things,” Adams said of Boise State presenters.
Lewis-Clark, Idaho State pitch budgets
By comparison, Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton and Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee had a much smoother morning in JFAC.
Pemberton touted Lewis-Clark’s efforts to bring face-to-face learning to a state prison in Orofino — and a nursing program that has received high national rankings for affordability and online offerings. She urged lawmakers to approve Little’s request for a 4% state employee pay raise — saying it would help increase the college’s instructors’ pay, which lags behind the average salary for an Idaho K-12 teacher.
“This is our reality at LC State,” she said. “This is a reality we need to address.”
Satterlee urged lawmakers to back two of Little’s line items for Idaho State: $7 million to expand the physician assistant’s program in Pocatello, and $6 million to develop a vacant site near Idaho State’s Meridian campus.
He made another pitch for a program that didn’t make the cut with legislators last year, and didn’t make Little’s budget: $450,000 to build Idaho State’s academic advising team. Through private donations, Idaho State has beefed up this department, and retention rates are improving. “The program is working,” he said.
The University of Idaho is scheduled to make its budget presentation Friday.
U of I president cites new review exonerating DEI initiatives
The social justice debate resumed at Tuesday afternoon’s Senate Education Committee hearing — as Herndon tried to press the presidents on the cost of DEI positions.
Herndon said he cross-referenced the schools’ DEI positions against salary information on the state’s Transparent Idaho public checkbook, and pegged salary and benefit costs at $4.5 million.
Tromp said the positions — and the programs — are a response to the job market, as employers want to hire graduates who are ready for a 21st century workplace. “That is a part of our workforce development.”
And employers are paying for these positions, University of Idaho President Scott Green told Herndon. Three key diversity positions — such as a director of diversity in the U of I’s College of Engineering, funded by Micron Technology — are not funded by taxpayers, and in each case, the diversity officer’s salary is below market rate.
This was one finding from an independent review of the U of I, conducted by the Boise law firm Hawley Troxell in December and cited by Green Tuesday. It was a followup to a 2021 study from the firm, which exonerated the U of I’s DEI initiatives.
Hawley Troxell’s latest report, obtained by Idaho Education News after Tuesday’s committee meeting, was “consistent with the 2021 investigation, in which we concluded that UI’s diversity and inclusion initiatives do not rise to any level of impropriety.”
The presidents spent about 45 minutes speaking to Senate Education and fielding questions, and the hearing ended with a sharp exchange between senators. When committee chairman Dave Lent called an end to questioning, Herndon objected, saying he wanted to ask followup questions.
“This is exactly what this committee is about,” Herndon said.
Lent, R-Idaho Falls, was unpersuaded, and excused the presidents. Herndon sat quietly through the end of the meeting.
Charter organization hosts school choice rally
National School Choice Week is in full swing at the Statehouse.
The Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families — a nonprofit dedicated to school choice advocacy in Idaho — held a rally on the Capitol steps Tuesday. Students and teachers from over 10 charter schools across the state attended the rally, alongside parents, lawmakers and state leaders.
The rally celebrated Idaho’s array of school choice options — including public charter schools, virtual schools, magnet schools, private schools, homeschooling and more — and parents’ right to choose how they educate their children.
And state superintendent Debbie Critchfield touted Idaho’s top-three ranking for education freedom (ranked by the Heritage Foundation) in her speech. She also recounted her time on the campaign trail, when she put nearly 60,000 miles on her car visiting school districts, charters, private schools, homeschooling families and other education choice proponents across the state.
“I will continue to defend, protect and support a parent’s right to make those choices,” Critchfield told the over crowd of over 150.
She also promised the crowd that the State Department of Education “can and will do better” at connecting families to school choice resources and opportunities in their areas.
And Sen. Lori Den Hartog, one of the Legislature’s fiercest school choice advocates, addressed the crowd as well.
“I want you to know, parents and kids, that you have advocates in this building fighting for you every single day,” Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said, gesturing behind her to the Capitol.
Three students from different charter schools — Idaho Virtual Academy, Heritage Academy and Elevate Academy — also spoke at the rally, thanking their parents, teachers and lawmakers for choosing nontraditional schooling.
The IDVA student said she was in a dark place before leaving her traditional school. But the transition to online school, she said, allowed her to escape the bullying and ostracism she experienced at her public middle school, meet like-minded people and pursue an associates degree while in high school.
The Elevate Academy student told the crowd she was on the verge of dropping out before entering the career-technical charter school for at-risk students. Now, she’s about to become a first-generation college student.
Tuesday’s rally was accompanied by a school choice fair in the Statehouse rotunda.