Ybarra to consider trustees’ funding request for rural schools center

School chief Sherri Ybarra and leaders of the Idaho State Department of Education are deciding whether or not to amend next year’s proposed school budget in light of an endorsement from school trustees.

Post Legislative Tour
Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra

On Friday, members of the Idaho School Boards Association voted overwhelmingly to endorse one of Ybarra’s top priorities heading into the 2017 legislative session — the creation of a rural schools support center.

But that ISBA endorsement comes with a catch. School trustees said they would only endorse the rural school center if the funding came from Ybarra’s State Department of Education office, not the public schools budget.

As it’s currently written, Ybarra’s proposed school budget calls for spending $300,000 for the rural schools center out of the public school budget. If she does not amend the school budget, ISBA leaders said they would have no choice but to turn around and oppose the rural center on budgetary principles.

On Monday, Ybarra and her executive staff began discussing the ISBA endorsement and the rural schools center, spokesman Jeff Church said.

So far, no decision has been made.

“(Ybarra and our staff) are aware of the vote from the ISBA, and the executive team is discussing it,” Church said in a phone interview. “We do have some time over the next six weeks or couple of months to have that discussion.”

Ybarra began pushing for the rural schools center during the 2016 legislative session, saying it would provide extra services or personnel to small, isolated districts on a pay-as-you-go basis. She successfully steered the proposal through the House, but it died in the Senate during the final hours of the session.

Last week, trustees from districts large and small alike backed the concept, saying it could help level the playing field between large, wealthier districts and smaller districts that are more hard-pressed to hire specialized staff or offer coursework that is more common in large districts.

While they backed the concept, the budget is the sticking point for trustees. Earlier this year, the ISBA’s executive board adopted a policy of not supporting any new school initiatives that require new funding until teacher salaries are fully funded under the career ladder salary law and overall funding levels reach what they deem to be appropriate, modern levels.

Although Ybarra and her staff chose to publicly release an early version of next year’s school budget in September to add a degree of transparency to the budgeting process, she has not made her formal budget presentation to the Legislature.

Ybarra’s formal budget presentation is one of the closest watched hearings during the legislative session, and is likely to take place in late January.

Totaling more than $1.5 billion, the public school budget is Idaho’s largest budget expense, accounting for 48 percent of all general fund spending annually.

Ybarra is calling for increasing public school funding by 6.7 percent next year, once funding for the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind is factored in.