(UPDATED, 4:48 p.m., with additional detail on previous bonuses.)
State superintendent Sherri Ybarra gave her employees more than $600,000 in bonuses this spring.
It’s the largest set of bonuses Ybarra has awarded in her eight years in office. The payments began in April, weeks before the May Republican primary. Ybarra finished third in the three-person primary, and will leave office in January.
The bonuses — known as “temporary merit increases,” in state government parlance — represent a one-time bump in pay, at 9% for every employee in Ybarra’s State Department of Education. At the same time, every SDE employee is also eligible for a permanent, 7% pay increase, consistent with raises approved by the 2022 Legislature. Altogether, a handful of the department’s highest-paid staffers will receive more than $20,000 in raises and bonuses.
Two of the department’s top staffers — and two of the largest recipients of raises and bonuses — defended the decisions in an interview this week. They said the department is facing a challenge recruiting and retaining staff. This challenge is only made more complicated by political realities: In less than four months, a newly elected state superintendent will take over the helm at SDE.
Neither the raises nor the bonuses affected funding for school operations, SDE officials say.
Breaking down the bonuses
This spring, 99 SDE employees received $613,650 in bonuses.
The increases are designed to reward state employees for taking on extra work when a department is short-staffed. And it’s not a new concept: State superintendents have been issuing such bonuses for almost 20 years.
The money comes from salary savings, as positions are vacant during the hiring process. And the SDE had more vacancies in 2021-22, meaning the department had more money to award in bonuses, chief fiscal officer Louie Konkol said Monday.
By comparison, Ybarra awarded about $483,000 in bonuses in 2020-21 and $525,000 in 2019-20.
In all, Ybarra has awarded more than $3 million in bonuses since 2015-16. “Other departments of Idaho state government also routinely share vacancy savings with remaining staff,” Ybarra spokeswoman Kris Rodine said last week. “The practice is routine and encouraged.”
This year, Ybarra decided to give every eligible employee a 9% bonus. “I think that speaks to the caliber of the people we have working here,” said Marilyn Whitney, Ybarra’s deputy superintendent of communications and policy.
But the across-the-board approach means that the largest bonuses went to highly paid employees in Ybarra’s inner circle. Six employees, including Konkol and Whitney, received bonuses exceeding $10,000.
The bonuses came as a surprise to Rep. Wendy Horman, a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Horman said she knew about this year’s bonuses. But she didn’t realize Ybarra had been awarding similar, albeit smaller, bonuses through her two terms in office. Horman said she wants more answers about how the bonuses pencil out, and she’s not sold on the across-the-board approach.
“Bonuses are typically associated with high performance or longevity … or something of merit,” said Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican who plays a lead role in writing education budget bills.
One large bonus went to a senior staffer who is no longer on staff. Deputy superintendent of operations Joel Wilson received a $11,612 bonus. In June, Wilson left after 11 months at the SDE, taking a job as principal at Pocatello-Chubbuck’s Greenacres Elementary School.
The bonuses were designed to reward employees’ past performance, Konkol said.
“Those folks did more with less.”
Breaking down the pay raises
Meanwhile, the 2022 Legislature approved 7% pay raises for all state employees.
For the SDE, the raises cost $110,505 for the final weeks of the 2021-22 budget year, which ended June 30. The raises will cost $478,857 this year. And the money comes out of a state budget that covers the SDE’s operating costs — which is separate from the budget bills that cover K-12 operations.
But unlike the one-time bonuses, these pay raises will be part of the SDE’s salary base into the future — and will be an ongoing payroll obligation for the state’s next superintendent.
The Legislature gave state agencies some flexibility in awarding raises. The first 3% had to go out across the board, but the remaining 4% could be awarded as merit pay raises. Ybarra decided to award 7% raises to every employee.
This decision reflects workplace reality, Whitney said. “It’s challenging to retain people right now, and to recruit.”
While lawmakers gave agencies some flexibility to award merit pay, Horman said she has less of a concern about Ybarra’s decision to award across-the-board raises.
What other lame-duck officials have done
Ybarra is one of three statewide officers who lost in the May GOP primary — and are serving out the remaining months of their terms.
The three lame-duck officeholders have taken different approaches to raises and bonuses.
In July, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin gave part-time administrative assistant Machele Hamilton a full-time job and nearly a fourfold pay raise, Keith Ridler of the Associated Press reported. Hamilton was promoted to a position as director of strategy and constituent services — at a $77,000-a-year salary that would consume more than a third of the lieutenant governor’s $205,000 annual budget.
After the May primary, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden awarded $500 to $1,000 bonuses to more than 120 staffers — from deputies attorney general to support staff. These bonuses totaled nearly $120,000, about a fifth of the cost of the bonuses in Ybarra’s department.
‘I am curious about the rationale’
In January, Republican Debbie Critchfield or Democrat Terry Gilbert will succeed Ybarra as superintendent — and will assume the day-to-day administrative task of running the SDE, one of the largest departments in state government.
In a prepared statement Wednesday, Critchfield said she would take a different approach to bonuses.
“Noting the timing of the bonuses during primary season, I am curious about the rationale,” Critchfield said. “If I am successful in November, I hope for a smooth and professional transition. This includes full access to the existing funds from the Legislature that will allow us to attract a talented team at the department to support educators and kids. I will approach a bonus or pay increase based on merit, a work product, and dedication to Idaho’s students.”
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Gilbert declined to take a position on Ybarra’s payroll decisions.
Where the money comes from — and goes
Money for salaries comes from a free-standing spending bill for the SDE. This legislation is separate from the seven K-12 budget bills the Legislature passes each year — bills that cover teacher salaries, administrative pay and a host of programs from literacy to classroom technology.
The SDE cannot shift money out of programs, and the K-12 budget bills, to cover SDE staff salaries or bonuses, Konkol said.
But the department can — and does — return some unspent salary money, Konkol said.
Because the SDE budget bill funds 123 full-time positions, and the department currently has 106 employees on staff, the department has a glut of unspent salary money. While $600,000 covered this spring’s bonuses, the department is also sending back $1.6 million in unspent money this year, Konkol said.
“We just didn’t come across a bucket of money and spend it all,” he said. “We’re still cognizant that any unused money needs to go back.”