Ybarra at work on next year’s school budget

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series examining schools chief Sherri Ybarra’s position on an array of educational issues. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra faces her next big budget deadline in about one month.

On or about Sept. 1, state department and agency heads typically turn in their first budget proposals for the upcoming fiscal year to Gov. Butch Otter.

Ybarra says she will be ready.

This summer, she’s worked with representatives from Otter’s officer, district superintendents, education groups and her own budget and finance teams to begin tabulating the 2016-17 public school budget.

The Sept. 1 deadline is the first step in a lengthy process that culminates with Ybarra presenting her request to the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee – often in January.

“To be able to have conversations about that budget and why those things were chosen is going to be an exciting time in front of JFAC,” Ybarra said Tuesday. “We have a lot of plans on the table about what that’s going to look like and the whole team is very excited about that presentation.”

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Make no mistake, Ybarra’s request and the public school budget itself are a big deal in Idaho.

The K-12 budget is the state’s largest expense, accounting for 48 percent of all general fund spending. The JFAC presentation is closely watched by lawmakers on and off the committee, the media and education groups. Often, the schools chief delivers the budget presentation to a standing-room-only crowd in the committee room. Past superintendents have devoted roughly two hours to the presentation and a subsequent question-and-answer session.

This session, Ybarra said she was saddled with a budget developed in September by her predecessor, Tom Luna, and turned in two months before her election. When she made her first appearance before JFAC on Jan. 29, Ybarra devoted only 17 minutes to the budget presentation. Budget-writers pushed Ybarra for specifics, and set aside her proposed 6.4 percent increase in favor of a 7.4 percent spending boost that more closely aligned to Otter’s proposal.

Ybarra said things will be different next time.

She declined to get into specifics or share numbers, but said she is already having discussions about budget priorities in several directions.

Those discussions have included:

  • Continuing to fund and implement the 20 recommendations issued in 2013 by Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.
  • Budgeting money for district discretionary spending, sometimes called operations funding.
  • Setting aside more money for teacher professional development.

“By the time that rolls around, nobody is going to be surprised; they are already going to know what’s coming,” Ybarra said. “It’s just exciting to take ownership for that and to talk about local control and be able to have conversations about what was placed where and why.”

In crafting the budget and preparing for her presentation, Ybarra will likely work closely with her administrative leadership team, which includes her special assistant and longtime ally Tim Corder and Interim Chief Deputy Superintendent Pete Koehler. State Department of Education officials said Ybarra completed her leadership team with the recent addition of Chief Performance Officer Tim McMurtrey. McMurtrey, the former superintendent of the Mountain Home School District, was Ybarra’s boss before she was elected last year.

“I’m very proud of my executive team, and they are doing exactly what I asked them to carry out the vision and the strategic plan,” Ybarra said. “I also want to make it very clear that I have over 130 very hard-working employees at the State Department, and I don’t want them to go unnoticed either or, by any stretch of the imagination, minimize their work because they are here to serve school districts and kids too.”

Koehler initially planned to hold the No. 2 position for a short time and reenter retirement this spring. But Koehler extended his tenure, telling Idaho Education News in April that he now planned to remain through the end of the current calendar year.

On Tuesday, Ybarra said she and Koehler “haven’t revisited the fact that he is leaving yet,” but that she plans on him continuing to hold his position for “at least another three months.”

Ybarra described Koehler’s duties in greater detail this week, saying he has also become a personnel director who handles hiring within the State Department of Education.

Two members of Ybarra’s leadership team — McMurtrey and Community Relations Officer Chuck Zimmerly — are contractors as opposed to traditional full-time employees. Ybarra explained that the contractors have very specific work duties and work objectives to accomplish, while full-time employees work more broadly to fulfill her vision for education and are involved in more varied tasks.

“What the (organizational) chart at the State Department of Education looks like — what I’ve said from day one is that I’m not going to do anything the way folks are used to looking at it,” Ybarra said. “I was always going to be different.”

(Below is an organizational chart of Ybarra’s administrative leadership team. It includes their job descriptions and salaries. Click through the arrows at the bottom of the screen for a detailed look at each position.)

In the upcoming school year, Ybarra plans to focus on implementing the Legislature’s career ladder salary plan, rewriting the state’s strategic plan for education, changing the culture at the State Department of Education to focus on support and service and writing about “10 pieces of legislation that we are working on.”

Additionally, Ybarra’s team is set to review the Idaho Core Standards. She will encourage parents and residents to get involved through the Idaho Challenge, an online portal that will launch later this summer or fall to collect feedback on the English and math standards.

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