Statehouse roundup, 2.23.23: School bathroom bill heads to Senate floor

A bill requiring schools to provide separate bathrooms and locker rooms based on gender assigned at birth is headed to the Senate floor.

Thursday’s party-line Senate Education Committee vote represents the Legislature’s first meaningful action on an issue that has embroiled the Caldwell School Board in controversy since January.

On Thursday, critics said Senate Bill 1100 would discriminate and stigmatize transgender students. Bill sponsors said the bill would protect all students, while giving school districts the direction they need.

“Imagine being a school administrator or school superintendent, and having this on your plate every day,” said Sen. Ben Adams, R-Nampa.

SB 1100 would mandate schools to restrict restrooms and changing facilities to “male persons only or female persons only.”

“No person shall enter a multi-occupancy restroom or changing facility that is designated for one sex unless such person is a member of that sex,” the bill reads.

The bill would require schools to provide other accommodations for anyone “unwilling or unable” to use facilities aligned with their gender assigned at birth.

The language in SB 1100 deviates from the proposed Caldwell policy — and similar policies in effect in dozens of other school districts and charters. Those policies allow students to use facilities aligned with their gender identity.

And SB 1100 also divides two prominent school groups. The Idaho School Boards Association has defended LGBTQ+ rights policies aligned with gender identity. The Idaho Association of School Administrators supports SB 1100, executive director Andy Grover confirmed late Thursday afternoon.

Testimony at Thursday’s hearing ran generally in favor of SB 1100, and was often emotional.

“God made man and woman … and eventually men and women made men’s and women’s bathrooms for men and women,” said Michael Hon of Meridian. “We have either part A or part B. Let’s keep it simple.”

“Vote in favor of this bill, and don’t wait until some little girl is raped or molested in a bathroom,” said Sen. Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell. Trakel is not a member of Senate Education, but he took the unusual step of testifiying for the bill during the public comment period. In January, Trakel angrily admonished Caldwell school trustees to drop their proposed LGBTQ+ policy, or risk a lawsuit.

Opponents said the bill advanced false stereotypes about the transgender community.

“This Legislature is acting as though we are a threat,” said Emilia Connelly, a transgender woman who lives in Boise.

“Passing legislation like this will only further isolate the trans community,” said Alex Kuyper, a transgender student attending Pocatello High School.

Committee members disagreed about whether the bill would provide clarity for school trustees — or expose volunteer trustees to litigation, under a clause that allows students four years to file a civil suit.

“Districts are looking for direction and help, so this Legislature needs to make a stand,” said Sen. Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins.

“I can’t imagine what this will do to school districts’ insurance policies,” said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

With Thursday’s vote, SB 1100 could come before the full Senate for a vote within the next few days.

Feminine hygiene products bill sidetracked

A $735,000 proposal to furnish free feminine hygiene products in dispensers in school restrooms hit a roadblock Thursday morning.

The House Education Committee sidetracked the bill, with two conservative lawmakers pushing for changes in the wording. That move doesn’t necessarily kill the bill — but it delays the bill’s introduction, as the 2023 legislation heads into what could be its final weeks.

Reps. Lori McCann and Rod Furniss say the bill would help students who cannot afford feminine hygiene products, are embarrassed to go to a principal’s office or the nurse’s office for safe and sanitary products, and sometimes stay home from school during their menstrual period.

The bill would provide 2,175 dispensers for junior high schools and high schools, at a cost of $435,000, and earmark about $300,000 a year to stock the dispensers.

“We’re just asking (schools) to solve a problem, and we’re giving them some tools,” said McCann, R-Lewiston.

Furniss, R-Rigby, said the bill is also an attempt to raise awareness. “This bill sends a message to the schools.”

Committee members didn’t seem to have a problem with the proposal itself — but instead with the wording.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said she wanted specific language that would prevent schools from putting the dispensers in boys’ restrooms. “This is not a road I want to go down,” she said.

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, wanted a wording change that would specifically limit the bill to school facilities.

McCann didn’t object to either change.

But after haggling over potential wording changes, the committee voted to return the bill to the sponsors. That means they can rework the wording, and try to get a rewritten bill into the legislative pipeline.

“I have no intention of just dragging my feet on this thing,” said Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, the committee’s chair.

Abstinence bill sidetracked

House Education also tapped the brakes on another bill — one that would add a definition of abstinence to state law.

Sponsored by Ehardt, the bill would define abstinence as “the absence of any sexual activity prior to marriage.”

Ehardt said the bill is necessary because some sex education curricula define abstinence as the prevention of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, which is “deceiving” to parents.

Discussion of the bill was brief, but at times tense. Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said he was growing “weary” of bills that address overblown issues that are occurring in other states. “I see absolutely no need, no reason for this bill at all.”

Committee members kicked around tweaks to the bill, before voting to return it to the sponsor. This would give Ehardt a chance to come back with a rewritten bill.

Bill to elect State Board members introduced

A bill to elect State Board of Education members made its debut Thursday morning.

With little discussion, and no dissenting votes, the House State Affairs Committee introduced the bill, which would call for the election of seven State Board members, by region.

The bill would also designate the superintendent of public instruction the State Board’s chair. Currently, the state superintendent is the eighth member of the State Board — joining seven members, appointed by the governor.

Since the State Board oversees an education system that accounts for the bulk of Idaho’s budget, its members should be elected by voters, not appointed, said Rep. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s co-sponsor.

The bill also contains another wrinkle: The seven elected State Board members would receive a $12,000 annual stipend. The seven appointed board members are volunteers.

The idea of elected State Board members is not new; the Idaho Republican Party incorporated the proposal into its platform, approved last summer.

With Thursday’s introduction, the bill could come before House State Affairs for a full hearing at a later date.

Employee benefits tweak introduced

With little discussion, House Education introduced a bill revisiting an ambitious plan to allow schools to use the state’s insurance plan.

In essence, the new bill would give school districts one more year to decide whether to join the state plan — rolling the deadline from 2024 to 2025.

Proposed by Furniss, the bill is a followup to legislation from 2022. A year ago, lawmakers provided $105 million of ongoing money to beef up school employee benefits and reduce out-of-pocket premiums, and $75 million of one-time money to allow schools to buy in to the state insurance plan, if they choose to.

A year into the program, results have been mixed. While some school districts have opted to join the state plan, others have used their share of the $105 million fund to switch to other insurance carriers or roll back out-of-pocket costs.

The bill could come back to House Education for a full hearing at a later date.

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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