Ybarra makes her pitch for rural schools center

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra launched an effort Wednesday to garner support among lawmakers for her proposed rural schools center.

Sherri Ybarra4
Sherri Ybarra

Even with its comparatively modest $300,000 price tag, the rural schools center is a major component of Ybarra’s budget request. It’s also a proposal that doesn’t appear in Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 budget proposal.

Ybarra said the rural schools center would help rural and geographically isolated districts by offering services, partnerships and resources they may not otherwise have access to.

“We have all these services in Idaho we can provide, yet it’s not getting down to the kids,” Ybarra told the House Education Committee.

Ybarra stressed that 70 percent of Idaho’s school districts are rural, and her proposal was motivated by a desire to increase the equity among small districts.

On Wednesday she shopped her proposal by teaming up with Rich McBride, the superintendent of one of nine regional schools centers in the state of Washington.

Using the Washington model as an example, an Idaho rural schools center could offer districts a variety of services, including budget development, nursing, accounting, human resources, communications, IT support, contracting and administrators for rent or hire.

In Washington, the regional centers hire the employees, and then sell the services with an added 9 percent administrative fee, McBride said. McBride’s North Central Educational Service district in Wenatchee, Wash., receives about $500,000 in state “core funding” each year, but maintains an operating budget of about $15 million — with most of this money coming from school districts, grants or cooperatives.

The program works for districts, McBride said, because the center buys from vendors in bulk and offers services a la carte. McBride’s center may employ a full-time budget and finance expert available to districts, but districts would be able to utilize that employee on a part-time or temporary basis as needed, saving them from hiring a full-time staffer.

Ybarra has promised that Idaho district leaders would be able to choose “from a menu” of available services and only buy what they need.

Lawmakers asked Ybarra only a couple of questions about her proposal.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, asked how STEM education and math coaches could reach students in rural districts. Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, said many districts have their own unique concerns and wondered how the centers would provide individual attention.

McBride said the rural centers’ proximity “builds extraordinarily deep relationships” to address unique concerns.

Ybarra proposed locating the first Idaho rural schools center in Coeur d’Alene and partnering with Washington’s centers. However, she has not presented a bill to create the center. Under questioning in Wednesday afternoon’s Senate Education Committee meeting, Ybarra said she wants the Legislature to provide $300,000 in startup funding for the center before presenting a bill.

In other Statehouse news Wednesday:

School trustee elections. Senate Education printed two bills that would rework school board elections — and perhaps boost voter turnout.

The first would move school board elections to the November general election ballot. Trustee elections are now held in May, and on odd calendar years. The timing of the election has posed “a significant barrier to voter involvement,” Sens. Jim Rice and Mary Souza wrote in the bill’s statement of purpose. Sponsors reviewed 2015 voter turnout in 22 Idaho districts; in half of these districts, voter turnout lagged below 12 percent.

The shift to the general election is likely to hit some resistance, however. Critics have questioned the idea of moving nonpartisan school board elections onto a ballot populated with partisan federal, state and county races.

The second bill, also introduced by Souza, would allow all voters to cast ballots in all trustee races. Trustees are now elected by voters in electoral zones, and voters can cast ballots only in their local trustee’s race. Souza called this a form of “unintended voter suppression.”

Under Souza’s bill, trustees would still have to live in district zones, but would run across the entire district.

The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, but not without reservations. Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said he believed the change would make it tougher for rural candidates to win a trustee’s election.

Both bills are likely to come back to Senate Education for hearings.

More reading: Another bill, co-sponsored by Souza, would ramp up campaign disclosure requirements for trustee elections and recall elections. Details on Kevin Richert’s blog.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.