Statehouse roundup, 2.28.17: House panel introduces rural schools bill

The House Education Committee voted Tuesday to introduce a bill that would enact one of state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s top legislative priorities — a rural schools center.

Ybarra has been pushing for the rural schools center for two years, saying it would help pool resources and personnel to benefit small, rural, or geographically isolated school districts that don’t have the same opportunities as larger, wealthier districts.

If passed into law, the bill would create one regional rural schools center. Interested local districts or charters would opt-in to become members of the rural schools center and then pay for services on an as-needed basis. Ybarra will also seek $300,000 in new funding through the State Department of Education budget to launch the rural center and hire a director and staff.

In years past, Ybarra has laid out a vision for several rural education centers functioning throughout the state. However, the new bill authorizes a single center and would not allow additional centers until Ybarra and the Legislature have reviewed three years worth of annual reports from the original center.

This year, Ybarra’s staff has rebranded the proposal, describing it as a rural education support network, not just a center.

Committee members asked very few questions about the bill Tuesday, but Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, asked what percentage of the $300,000 price tag would go to salaries.

Last year, Ybarra secured passage of a similar rural schools bill in the House, but she introduced it so late in the session that Senate did not take it up before adjourning for the year and killing the bill.

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A year ago, several lawmakers expressed reluctance to back the proposal, wondering if it would create a new layer of bureaucracy and whether Ybarra’s State Department of Education could go ahead and offer the same services without physically creating the rural schools center.

Under Idaho law, school districts are already allowed to enter into cooperative agreements. However, chief policy advisor Duncan Robb said that arrangement isn’t optimal, because it may require students to travel to receive services. Under the rural schools network, Ybarra’s staff envisions providing the services directly at the local level.

This year, Ybarra’s staff introduced the bill almost three weeks earlier than it did last year, but they still waited until the 51st day of the session to do so. Lawmakers have said they are working to adjourn the session March 24, giving Ybarra about 3.5 weeks to work with, if that schedule holds.

Even though Ybarra’s team has been working on the proposal for two years, the statement of purpose and fiscal note attached to the bill are a little hard to follow. The last sentence reads “As authorizes just one Network over the next three years, the maximum fiscal impact over the next three years is $900,000.”

The statement of purpose identifies Ybarra as the contact for the bill, but it incorrectly spells her name “Sharri Ybarra.”

In general, legislative leaders and committee chairmen are seeking a greater degree of accuracy and precision on fiscal notes this year.

The rural schools bill is expected to return to House Education for a full hearing, possibly as early as Wednesday.

Electioneering bill

In other action Tuesday, the House will try to fix a bill to clamp down on electioneering in school elections and local elections.

The House State Affairs Committee’s vote came after the head of the Idaho School Boards Association said the bill was too flawed to fix.

As written, House Bill 189 would prohibit the use of “public funds, resources or property” to promote or oppose a ballot measure.

Supporters say the bill would help protect taxpayers from publicly funded campaigns supporting a bond issue or a levy election. Opponents said the bill would have a chilling effect on government agencies and public employees.

ISBA executive director Karen Echeverria said the bill could actually reduce government transparency, since school districts could be reluctant to provide voter information on ballot measures. Kathy Griesmyer of the American Civil Liberties Union predicted HB 189 would make public employees think twice about expressing their political views, even off hours.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Monks, R-Nampa, said his bill addressed only the use of public resources, not employees’ First Amendment rights. “I don’t see how those two are necessarily tied together.”

But even Monks conceded his bill needed work. For example, he wants to amend the bill to make sure opponents have a limited time frame to contest a bond issue or levy.

After Echerverria offered to work with Monks on a bill after the session — and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, tried to hold the bill in committee for a week — House State Affairs voted to send HB 189 to the House floor for amendment.

Reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.