Weekly ed news roundup, Feb. 24-27

School safety. The House Education Committee debated a school safety bill for nearly an hour before approving it Thursday morning.

Burley Drill
Law enforcement officials participate in a school safety drill in August, 2013.

Lawmakers wrestled over funding implications and splitting cigarette taxes before voting 7-5 to send House Bill 528 to the floor with a recommendation it pass.

At issue is $4.7 million the state receives from tobacco taxes. The state had shifted some of that money around during the recession, to bolster school district operations budgets.

The bill, pushed by State Department of Education Deputy Chief of Staff Jason Hancock, would send $200,000 of the $4.7 million to the Idaho State Police, and $80,000 for substance abuse to The Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

Under changes in the bill, this $280,000 would flow directly to police and substance abuse, while 50 percent of the money would be split 50/50 between juvenile corrections and schools.

School districts would be able to put their money toward developing and implementing safety plans with local emergency responders.

Much of the debate centered on the sobering results of a recent Safe and Secure Schools Task Force.

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Lawmakers questioned how much money was needed for substance abuse and police, and asked if the state was imposing an unfunded mandate on school safety.

Reps. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, Steven Harris, R-Meridian and Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, voted against the bill.

While HB 528 would pull money out of operational funding, a separate proposal would increase districts’ operations funds by $35 million.

Employee grievances. Currently, grievances for non-certified employees hinge on the interpretation of one short phrase: “unfair treatment.”

And this has led to some unusual grievances, says Karen Echeverria of the Idaho School Boards Association — covering everything from to pay to dress code, to the number of cans of green beans a cafeteria worker was expected to open.

House Bill 501 — designed to better define the grievance process — received unanimous approval in the Senate Education Committee and heads to the Senate floor.

ISBA and the Idaho Education Association negotiated the bill’s language, and the result is a “compromise” legislation, said Robin Nettinga, the IEA’s executive director. And the state might need to tighten the language in the future. “We’ll try this for a while,” she said.

HB 501 has already passed the House 59-10. (For a look at the House roll call, go to Idaho Education News’ vote tracker.)

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Don Soltman

Don Soltman. Senate Education sent State Board of Education President Don Soltman’s confirmation to the floor, with a unanimous thumbs-up.

Soltman, of Twin Lakes, has served on the State Board since 2009.

Also on the Senate’s docket: Richard Westerberg’s confirmation. Westerberg, of Preston, has served on the State Board since 2007, and chaired Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force in 2013.

Salamanders. The Idaho giant salamander took one amphibious step toward statewide recognition.

Ilah Hickman
Ilah Hickman and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise

The debate on Senate Bill 1271, the state amphibian bill, had its light moments. Meridian Republican Marv Hagedorn regaled colleagues with a story about hooking one of the salamanders while on a fishing expedition. Caldwell Republican Jim Rice seemed sold on one of the salamander’s virtues: a taste for eating small rattlesnakes.

But the debate was also punctuated with praise for Ilah Hickman, a seventh-grader at Boise’s Les Bois Junior High School, who has been working on the legislation since fourth grade.

Sens. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, and Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, praised Ilah’s preparedness, persistence and charm. Passing SB 1271 was not just a matter of naming a state amphibian, said Ward-Engelking, the bill’s floor sponsor. “It is about the youth of Idaho being a part of our great government.”

SB 1271 passed 33-2, with Republicans Curt McKenzie of Nampa and Jeff Siddoway of Terreton comprising an anti-salamander caucus of sorts. The bill now goes to the House.

Technology data tool. Members of the Idaho Leads Project unveiled a new data tool Tuesday at the Statehouse that is designed to help educators develop technology improvement plans.

Lisa Kinnaman, co-director of the Boise-based nonprofit Idaho Leads Project, said her organization partnered with Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained researchers from San Francisco-based BrightBytes to launch Clarity for Schools.

To gather the data, members of the Idaho Leads Project conducted technology audits schools and charters, surveying thousands of Idaho students and teachers.

The Clarity for School report covered 66 school districts and charters (more than half of all districts in the state) and produced colorful infographics and charts that presented the data.

Here are some of the highlights from Kinnaman’s presentation:

  • They surveyed more than 40,807 students, teachers and parents, including 30,221 Idaho students.
  • Teachers surveyed reported that 25 percent of their classrooms already have a one-to-one ratio of students to computer devices, while an additional 9 percent reported a two-to-one ratio.
  • Eighty-seven percent of teachers said they wanted to learn more about using technology to promote instructional teaching, while 72 percent of teachers said they wanted to develop more multimedia skills.
  • Ninety-four percent of teachers surveyed said they either agree or strongly agree that technology can enhance student learning.
  • Just 8 percent of students reported that had a high knowledge of digital citizenship skills such as access, online etiquette and self-protection.

During the hearing Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, asked whether the Idaho Leads Project team was capable of expanding the Clarity for Schools project on a statewide basis.

“Do you have the capacity to support (the program) on a full statewide basis, nobody has asked the question about funding,” Horman said.

Horman was a long-time trustee with the Bonneville Joint School District, which is one of the 66 Idaho school districts participating in the Idaho Leads Project.

Kinnaman replied that the Leads team spent about $47,000 on the contract for Clarity and would be able to replicate the program statewide for about 50 cents per student.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News and the Idaho Leads Project are funded by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.   

Ag funding. A divided Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a $53.1 million budget for the state’s professional-technical programs — a budget that includes $512,900 for ag programs.

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Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace

Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, led the push for the ag budget boost, which passed the budget committee on a 16-2 vote.

But first, the committee rejected a slightly larger, and more far-reaching budget increase. The $53.2 million professional-technical proposal would have included a 15 percent, across-the-board increase for all professional-technical programs. This would have translated to a $166,500 increase for ag programs.

But this motion — written by Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls — died on a 9-9 tie vote. Gibbs’ motion later passed on a 16-2 vote, with Mortimer and Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls voting no.

The proposed budget represents an 8.4 percent increase for professional-technical programs.

The ag budget will move through the Legislature, as lawmakers take a closer look at ag programs — and professional-technical education in general. The Senate last week passed an ag initiative that recommends putting about $600,000 into teacher and district grants — although the bill does not provide funding. Mortimer, meanwhile, has proposed a legislative “interim committee” that would spend the off-season studying professional-technical programs.

Leadership premiums. A $15.8 million plan to award teacher leadership premiums is headed to the Senate floor.

The Senate Education Committee gave House Bill 504 a unanimous endorsement.

The bill would allow teachers to earn one-year premiums of $850 to $5,780 for taking on various leadership roles — such as mentoring, teaching multiple subjects or taking hard-to-fill positions. Districts will have latitude to establish criteria.

“I imagine we’ll have quite a variety of leadership definitions out there,” said one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls.

Clow, R-Twin Falls, estimated that about a third of the state’s teachers would qualify for the premiums.

The premiums are seen as a first step toward establishing a teacher career salary ladder, a multiyear undertaking with a price tag of roughly $250 million.

Dual credit. The House Education Committee passed a bill intended to clarify the legal definition of dual credit courses.

Marilyn Whitney, the Idaho State Board of Education’s chief legislative and communications officer, pushed Senate Bill 1229.

The bill deletes references to specific grade levels to avoid confusion over who is eligible to participate in dual credit courses. The language will apply broadly to secondary students in general if the bill is passed into law.

“We felt it was important we have a clear definition,” Whitney said.

The bill next moves to the House floor, it has already passed the Senate 34-0.

Charter school appeals. House Education also passed a bill dealing with the Public Charter School Commission.

Senate Bill 1264 is intended to avoid potential conflicts of interest in appeals, Whitney said.

The State Board’s executive director or a designee would enforce the provisions of charter school laws and serve as the secretary of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission.

Under existing law, the executive director carries out those duties, but Whitney sought to add the “his or her designee” language in the event of a hearing involving a charter school authorized by the commission.

That bill next moves to the House floor. It also previously passed the Senate 34-0.