The state superintendent’s race kicked off Thursday as Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra and Democratic challenger Cindy Wilson squared off in front of hundreds of educators in Boise.
During the 40-minute forum, both candidates addressed hot-button education topics such as teacher pay, teacher shortages, school funding and facilities needs.
In her role as challenger, Wilson went on the offensive early. Without naming Ybarra, Wilson pledged to go all in for education.
“It’s time to show up,” Wilson said. The choice of words amounted to a jab at Ybarra. After the 2018 legislative session, outgoing House Education Chairwoman Julie VanOrden said Ybarra needed to show up more at the Statehouse in order to work collaboratively to pass her legislative agenda.
Ybarra also came out swinging — also without naming names. She attacked her predecessor, Republican Tom Luna, saying she ran for superintendent in 2014 because, as an educator and building administrator, she was frustrated by the culture of the State Department of Education. Ybarra said the SDE had devolved into a bureaucracy that was bad for teachers and bad for kids.
“As a former principal, I was not impressed by the name ‘em, blame ‘em, shame ‘em form of accountability we had in place,” said Ybarra, earning applause.
From there, things settled down a bit, and the candidates even staked out some common ground.
The Q&A: a rundown
Question: What are your thoughts on the new school funding formula recommendations?
Ybarra: “I support reducing line items and giving you more flexibility.” She said she hears two priorities from education groups: retaining the career ladder salary law and investing extra dollars in supporting at-risk students.
Wilson: “Three words: do no harm.” Wilson also advocated for keeping the career ladder salary law intact and investing additional money to benefit special-needs students, such as at-risk students or English language learners.
Question: What strategies do you propose to make sure students in all districts and charters have good facilities?
Ybarra: “I support all programs for facilities.” She specifically mentioned the Bond Levy Equalization Fund and the Cooperative Fund.
Wilson: “As a political scientist, I understand the importance of supermajorities when we talk about taxation. However, it is killing us. Getting 66 percent (voter support) puts a lot of districts in a tough situation.”
Question: How would you address the severe teacher shortage in Idaho?
Ybarra: “Part of the crisis is a lack of respect and the national conversation around negativity in education.” Ybarra called for bumping up the top end of the career ladder salary law from $50,000 to $58,000 and voiced support for master educator premiums for veteran teachers who go above and beyond.
Wilson: “We’re losing people right and left to Texas, Wyoming and Washington where they can earn so much more per year.” Wilson called for increasing the top end of the career ladder to $60,000. She also proposed housing stipends for teachers, covering 100 percent of insurance costs and granting teachers more time to collaborate and plan lessons.
Due to time constraints, candidates fielded only one audience question. Steven Hoy, principal at Twin Falls’ Morningside Elementary School, asked Ybarra about her proposed $21 million school safety program, which she calls Keep Idaho Students Safe (KISS). Hoy asked Ybarra why she designed the program without any input from education stakeholders.
Ybarra said she developed her initiative with outside help. She specifically said her original Parents Advisory Council helped name the plan. Without offering details, Ybarra said kids urged her to involve students in the plan, saying school security and bullying initiatives should involve students and not just be directed at adults.
A forum fact check
In advocating for teacher pay, Ybarra was adamant that there is no cap on the funding available for pay incentives for veteran teachers — a program called master educator premiums.
“I’ve dug deep and hard, and there is no cap,” Ybarra said.
Technically, Ybarra is correct. There is no cap. There is also no funding in the current school budget for master educator premiums. The 2019 Legislature will decide on the framework and funding.
If the Legislature takes the unusual step of creating the program and writing a blank check to pay for it, there would be no cap. But if the Legislature created the program and approves $15 million in funding, the cap would be $15 million. Because the program hasn’t received any funding yet, it’s probably too early to definitively say there is no cap. That’s a decision that will be up to the Legislature — and educators, taxpayers and the winner of the state superintendent’s election will have plenty to say about the outcome.
About the forum
Thursday’s forum took place during the Idaho Association of School Administrators summer leadership conference in Boise. IASA Executive Director Rob Winslow moderated the debate, with about 450 school administrators in the audience.