Superintendents applaud teacher raises but question the future of teacher evaluations

Superintendents say they are generally pleased with the 2017-18 school budget proposals before the Legislature, but said Idaho needs to figure out the next steps for teacher evaluations and rising health care premiums.

Idaho Education News interviewed a handful of superintendents from across the state. They favor most aspects of the K-12 budget proposals from Gov. Butch Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.  

Both plans bolster education spending by more than 6 percent, and include $62 million in teacher raises under the Legislature’s career ladder salary law.

“We’re happy to see agreement on the career ladder going forward; that’s most important to us,” said Boise School District Superintendent Don Coberly. “We need to make teacher salaries competitive.”

But superintendents have concerns over the fate of teacher evaluations. Ybarra wants $300,000 to train school administrators who evaluate teachers. Otter wants to give $2.5 million to the State Board of Education for training.

The plans’ differences are at once financial and political. Superintendents didn’t pick sides in the debate, but said the state needs to get in sync — something that will “give lawmakers more confidence in funding the career ladder,” Coberly said.

“Let’s pick one and make sure there is enough support for us — someone there to help districts,” said Melba Superintendent Andy Grover.

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Otter and key legislators have tied the fate of career ladder funding to an improved evaluations process. Since June 2015, Idaho Education News has chronicled incomplete and inaccurate evaluations data reports compiled at Ybarra’s State Department of Education, and key lawmakers have criticized her for sitting on an unfavorable outside review of 2014-15 evaluations.

Now, lawmakers must choose between Otter’s proposal and Ybarra’s. Currently, school leaders report evaluations data to the SDE while the State Board audits evaluations.

“I would encourage the State Board, the SDE and lawmakers to slow down and hit the pause button and first figure out what we’re trying to accomplish and go from there,” said Nampa superintendent David Peterson.

Involving the State Board could complicate evaluations matters even more, said West Jefferson superintendent Dwight Richins.

“Most of us are good soldiers, but the direction hasn’t been very good up to this point,” Richins said.

Blackfoot superintendent Brian Kress said he’s concerned about the policy-driven State Board taking evaluations from SDE, and the added cost that comes with it.

“I’m worried that State Board is getting very much involved in an area where they should write rules and then leave it to the State Department of Education and superintendents to handle things,” Kress said.

Kress acknowledged that professional development is an “ongoing process” and that evaluations training is needed — but not $2.5 million worth. Ybarra’s proposed $300,000 is probably much more in line with what administrators would need, he said. The $2.2 million difference could be “much more well spent in other areas,” such as health insurance premiums.

When it comes to health insurance, Otter’s plan has garnered favor among superintendents.

Otter’s budget earmarks $15 million to help districts cover the rising cost of health insurance and doesn’t increase funding for “operational” spending.

Ybarra wants to put an additional $16.2 million into operational budgets, which districts could use to cover a wide variety of needs, including health insurance.

“I’ve long supported a line item for health benefits,” said Peterson.

Melba’s Grover agreed: “It needs to be a line item because people can more easily see the cost.”