Ybarra readies school budget, promotes standards review

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra is putting the finishing touches on one of her major assignments — next year’s school budget.

Sherri Ybarra
Superintendent Sherri Ybarra / Ed News file photo by Andrew Reed.

By next Tuesday, Ybarra is expected to turn in an early proposal for the 2016-17 public school budget, the state’s largest general fund expense. The Legislature ultimately sets and approves the state budget, which also must avoid Gov. Butch Otter’s veto stamp. But the state superintendent’s budget proposal is important because, along with Otter’s own budget proposal, Ybarra will set the tone for statehouse school budget discussions, identify her policy priorities and send a message to educators and taxpayers across the state.

During a lengthy interview with Idaho Education News on Wednesday morning at her Boise office, Ybarra took ownership of next year’s budget. She also didn’t shy away from the fact that her budget presentation to the 2015 Legislature was scrutinized for its brevity. She pointed out, again, that timing essentially forced her to present former state superintendent Tom Luna’s proposal.

“I was presenting someone else’s work and didn’t have the opportunity to be collaborative,” Ybarra said. “This year will look completely different… It is my work, it is the work of the department and it is the work of a collaborative team effort.”

Ybarra’s hasn’t released details of her budget, but pledged to do so before the Legislature convenes in January. However, she did emphasize that her funding blueprint will be rooted in the 20 recommendations issued in 2013 by Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.

“The governor’s task force recommendations are what I call ‘the common sense of education,’” she said. “If you read through those, and we here at the State Department (of Education), especially my executive staff, know those like the back of our hand, there was a lot of work and effort that went in those.”

“You will see almost all of those (recommendations) come through in the theme in the budget,” Ybarra continued.

Sherri Ybarra1This summer, Ybarra’s staff released a preliminary list of 10 proposed pieces of legislation for the 2016 session. The proposals cover several issues including data collection, transportation, sick leave and tax credits for educators. But they do not appear to address major unfinished hallmarks of the task force recommendations, which means many will turn to her budget proposal to see how task force recommendations are addressed.

“At the 50,000-foot-level, what you will see is a lot of flexibility so that folks can make decisions at the local level, you will see increased discretionary funding,” Ybarra said.

Restoring discretionary funding (sometimes called operations funding) and autonomy at the local level are two of the 20 task force recommendations. So is revamping the state’s accountability structure, which Ybarra is striving to accomplish in conjunction with a new waiver granting flexibility from some federal education laws.

Ybarra also pledged that she and Otter will offer a unified front on education spending priorities.

“In the governor’s own words ‘the superintendent and I will be on same page with our budgets,’ actually that is the message (Otter) carried when we went on Capital for a Day tours together,” Ybarra said.

Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian, and his education liaison, Marilyn Whitney, confirmed Wednesday that Otter’s staff worked collaboratively with Ybarra and offered her advice.

“The superintendent has had several meetings with stakeholders, and we have been a part of those meetings,” Whitney said. “We have given her input on what the governor’s priorities are, which are the task force recommendations. We’ve also had more in-depth discussions about the implementation of those recommendations.”

“Absolutely collaboration has been the hallmark of this entire effort, obviously, and not just at the Department of Education, but broadly, with all stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds,” Hanian said. “I think we have done that, and we look forward to that and I think there will be more meetings where we plan to do that.”

Meanwhile, Ybarra is also focusing her back-to-school message on a statewide, public review of the Idaho Core Standards in English and Math. Earlier this month, Ybarra’s office unveiled the Idaho Standards for Learning Challenge, an online tool designed to give the public a chance to critique Idaho Core Standards.

The review allows anyone to read every single Core standard in English and math, click a Facebook-style icon indicating whether they agree with the standard and then leave a detailed comment. Once the review is complete, results will be forwarded to the State Board of Education and the Idaho Legislature for potential improvements or changes.

In the first two weeks since the launch, more than 700 people have participated in the review, Ybarra said.

“You get the opportunity to actually read them and make a comment on every individual standard, versus maybe hearing a rumor from a neighbor or seeing a viral math problem on YouTube” Ybarra said. “This is a great way to educate yourself, this is a great way to get involved.”

The Idaho Standards for Learning Challenge runs into December, and may be accessed online here.

Finally, Ybarra reflected on the new school year, her goals and offered a message to students, parents and educators. Ybarra’s son is beginning his high school career in the Mountain Home district, and her back-to-school message is available at the beginning of the video that appears at the top of this page.

Coming Thursday to Ed News:

Check back with Idaho Education News on Thursday for an overview of a recent audit of Ybarra’s office, her reaction to the findings and a look at the strategic plan she is developing to overcome some of the challenges auditors identified.