Waiting game: Educators watch Ybarra’s transition closely

Sherri Ybarra isn’t saying much about her transition as state superintendent-elect — or about her plans when she takes office in January.

So local education officials are in waiting mode. They aren’t sure what to expect, so they’re also hoping for the best.

“I need her not to fail,” McCall-Donnelly School District Superintendent Glen Szymoniak said Thursday, during a break in the Idaho School Boards Association’s annual convention in Boise. “Everybody in the state needs her to succeed.”

Oct. 2 Ybarra
State superintedent-elect Sherri Ybarra speaks to educators during an Oct. 2 debate in Boise.

But for some, optimism is tempered by the fact that the clock is ticking.

“It’s essential that she start building a coalition,” Boise district Superintendent Don Coberly said. “It’s not going to be enough to start in January. She needs to hit the ground running.”

The transition to date

Nine days after narrowly winning the superintendent’s race, the Republican Ybarra is still working full-time in the Mountain Home School District.

She’s in the midst of meeting with stakeholders and legislators, assembling a transition team and drawing up a long-term staffing plan, said Melinda Nothern, Ybarra’s campaign spokeswoman, who is working with the superintendent-elect for the next few weeks.

On Tuesday, Ybarra met with outgoing state superintendent Tom Luna and his leadership team, and held an open meeting to allow any of the State Department of Education’s 140 employees the chance to get acquainted.

The Ybarra team will certainly look different than the team that surrounded Luna during his eight years in office. Several top staffers have left since January, when Luna said he would not seek a third term. Now, Chief of Staff Luci Willits is also on her way out; last week, she announced that she is leaving for a job with Smarter Balanced, the contractor that is preparing Common Core-aligned exams for Idaho and other states.

Not surprisingly, the Ybarra transition has been the topic of considerable scuttlebutt at this week’s ISBA convention. New Plymouth district Superintendent Ryan Kerby — a fellow Republican who supported Ybarra’s candidacy and himself was elected to a state House seat in Nov. 4 — is not sure what is happening behind the scenes. But Kerby would rather see Ybarra take the time to put together a talented and loyal team, instead of making a snap hire that turns out to be a mistake. “I’d hate to see her get too much in a hurry.”

An amicable process

The last time Idaho moved from one state superintendent to the next, the transition was turbulent. First, outgoing superintendent Marilyn Howard drew criticism for awarding more than $120,000 in bonuses; almost every Education Department staffer got a share of the money. Then, Luna came under scrutiny for firing 19 of Howard’s staffers.

And all of this unfolded before Luna’s first day on the job.

Partisan politics certainly entered into the equation, as the Republican Luna took the helm from Howard, a Democrat. This time, as one Republican is succeeding another, both principals are proceeding cautiously.

After initially agreeing to talk about the transition process, Luna denied Idaho Education News’ interview request a couple of hours later. “He would like to give Superintendent-elect Ybarra some time to decide how the transition should be handled,” Luna spokesman Brady Moore said in an email. “Superintendent Luna would be happy to discuss the transition after some more time has passed.”

For her part, Ybarra is trying to be mindful of the fact that, until January, Luna is still in charge at the Education Department.

“She’s refraining from commenting on department operations, currently,” Nothern said Thursday.

Wait-and-see mode

When Ybarra breaks her silence on policy matters, there will be plenty to discuss. In some form, a controversial tiered teacher licensure plan is likely to go before the 2015 Legislature. Schools will continue to prepare to administer the Smarter Balanced tests — which, for the first time this spring, will count as a school and student accountability measure. A recent court ruling has thrown Idaho’s high school broadband network into limbo, and taxpayers may have to spend millions to save the system. Ybarra also will inherit, or rewrite, the final budget Luna has prepared as state superintendent, which includes a 3 percent increase for salaries and benefits and $10 million to reverse some of the budget cuts schools sustained during the recession.

Ybarra the candidate sent inconsistent messages on the budget — at times saying she would support Luna’s budget, at other times expressing skepticism about the need to boost spending and reverse the recession-era budget cuts. During the campaign, she said tiered licensure was a step in the right direction, a statement that left Coberly wanting more detail.

West Ada School District trustee Anne Ritter is also unsure what to expect.

“I’m concerned, and I’m concerned because I never heard from her a clear understanding of the breadth of the job,” she said. “I’m hoping I missed it.”

Kerby has no such worries. For eight years, Luna was a change agent. Now, Ybarra will return the focus to the basics. And he describes her as a “guru” on curriculum, assessment and data analysis.

“I think Sherri Ybarra is exactly what Idaho needs,” he said. “She’s really good at what we really need.”

However, some administrators are still waiting to hear for themselves. While Luna addressed the ISBA convention Thursday morning, Ybarra did not. Executive Director Karen Echeverria told attendees what she told Idaho Education News earlier this week: There wasn’t enough time after the election to get Ybarra onto the agenda.

“I think everybody would have been excited to see her here and interact with her,” Szymoniak said.

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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