Statehouse roundup, 1.15.24: Hundreds attend hearing on library bill

Librarians told the House State Affairs Committee on Monday that a bill requiring them to relocate “harmful” books would be impractical and expensive to implement. 

The committee voted along party lines to advance the legislation during a crammed hearing that needed overflow rooms to hold attendees. Rep. Jaron Crane’s bill is the latest among a string of proposals to restrict material available to underage library patrons. 

House Bill 384 requires that libraries implement a process through which patrons can ask for materials to be moved to an adults-only section. If library officials don’t relocate the book, they could face a civil lawsuit that includes statutory penalties. 

“There’s no book banning, and there’s no book burning,” Crane, R-Nampa, told the committee. “We’re simply codifying a relocation policy that creates a fair process for both parties that are involved.” 

State Affairs Chairman and Nampa Rep. Brent Crane, Jaron Crane’s brother, allowed for about an hour and a half of public testimony on the bill. Hundreds of people attended the meeting, which fell on the same day as a teachers union event at the capitol. 

Most testimony strongly opposed the proposal. Libraries already have policies for challenging material in circulation, and the Legislature should allow those processes to be controlled locally, several librarians said. And the threat of a lawsuit would compel costly renovations and additional staff to create adults-only sections and guard them, said Idaho Falls Public Library Director Robert Wright. 

“We’re one of the largest libraries in Eastern Idaho,” he said. “We can’t afford to do this.”

Others criticized the standards that would determine whether content is “harmful” to minors. Idaho law defines “harmful” as content that’s “obscene,” appeals to the prurient interest of minors” and is “patently offensive to prevailing standards” of what’s suitable for children. Content is also “harmful” if it’s “obscene” and “has the dominant effect of substantially arousing sexual desires” in minors.

“Obscene material,” as defined by Idaho law, is content that includes nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement and sado-masochistic abuse. Any act of homosexuality falls under the definition of “sexual conduct.”

“The homophobia in this bill is blatant,” said Isabella Burgess, a college student and associate librarian in Meridian. “It’s absolutely essential that we have books that represent every member of our community that are accessible to every age range.”

The hearing showed diverging opinions over whether libraries should be responsible for supervising content that children access. Mary Ruckh, a Boise grandmother of two elementary schoolers who opposes the bill, urged lawmakers to “trust and allow parents to care for their children.”

Jennifer Holmes of Post Falls had a different view. Holmes said she asked officials from her local library to relocate a DVD that showed two men kissing on the cover. The request was denied and Holmes was told “it’s my responsibility as the parent to monitor my children,” she recalled for the committee. 

“Needless to say, I stopped going to that library,” Holmes said. 

Others who support House Bill 384 said they’ve struggled to change library policies locally. Children are “frequently being harmed and corrupted” by library content, said Rachelle Ottosen, a public library trustee in Rathdrum. The board has tried since last year to tighten library policies, but has been stymied by threats of lawsuits, Ottosen said. 

“It’s mind-boggling that adults demand children have access to sexually explicit materials,” she said. 

There was little discussion among committee members before a vote to advance the bill to the full House with a “do-pass” recommendation. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, moved to delay a vote and allow those who didn’t testify in the allotted time an opportunity to submit written comments to the committee. The motion failed on a party-line vote.

Turnaround and turnover: Cascade shares a success story

In the summer of 2018, Cascade administrators were told to brace for bad news: Their rural junior-senior high school was on a soon-to-be-released list of Idaho’s low-performing schools.

The grim ranking started the district on a six-year journey of turnaround and turnover. And on Monday, Cascade superintendent Joni Stevenson shared the district’s story with House Education.

Joni Stevenson

”Our community was very angry with us,” said Stevenson, who was principal of Cascade’s elementary school when the 2018 rankings came out. “They were embarrassed.”

Cascade took several steps to address the problems. The district revamped its curricula: math first, then English language arts. Administrators spent more time giving feedback and in-person supervision of teachers in class. Test scores are posted on hallway walls.

And Cascade’s 210 students are putting up improved scores. Cascade has ranked in the top 10% in early literacy proficiency since 2021. Cascade landed in the statewide top 10 on last year’s math Idaho Standards Achievement Test. Cascade also topped the state’s public school districts on the science ISAT.

Stevenson also attributes the improvement to a “culture shift.” Cascade sought to stamp out what Stevenson calls “BCD:” blame, complain and defend. Since 2018, about 95% of the staff has turned over. Now in her second year as superintendent, Stevenson says the push for improvement has cost her some friends around the Valley County blue-collar community.

“You don’t come out unscathed,” said Stevenson, who added that she is personally invested in making the changes stick.

“It’s not fun to not be popular sometimes. It’s better to put kids first,” House Education Chairwoman Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, said at the end of Stevenson’s presentation.

The House and Senate education committees will hear similar presentations each Monday. The goal, Yamamoto said, is to highlight success stories that can be replicated across the state.

‘The momentum you have created cannot be allowed to die’

While House State Affairs discussed the libraries bill in front of a crowded meeting room Monday morning, teachers also packed the House Education Committee’s meeting.

Nearly 200 teachers were in the Statehouse today for the Idaho Education Association’s annual lobbying effort.

Speaking on the union’s behalf, IEA President Layne McInelly praised the committee and urged them to continue to stand up for public education.

The $150 million in teacher pay raises, approved by the 2023 Legislature, signaled support for teachers and the work they do, McInelly said. At the same time, he said, House Education members fought library bills and pushed back against “bad” proposals to siphon public money into private schools.

Layne McInelly

“The momentum you have created cannot be allowed to die,” McInelly told the committee.

McInelly urged House Education to take a serious look at Gov. Brad Little’s $200 million-a-year school facilities proposal. Whether lawmakers pass Little’s plan, or come up with one of their own, he said, “it’s time this issue is addressed adequately.”

Mcinelly also urged the committee to take student mental health seriously. Little has proposed doubling the budget for college and career advisers, a move that also gives advisers’ more time to address mental health issues. This $9 million increase would help, McInelly said, “But this would only be a Band-Aid on a much bigger wound.”

Smartphone ‘filter’ bill returns

An Idaho Falls senator is again pushing a bill that would require smartphone and tablet manufacturers to enable pornography filters.

Manufacturers would be required to turn on the filters on devices sold to and used by minors — although parents would be able to use a password to turn off or turn on the filters.

The bill contains both civil and criminal penalties. A manufacturer that fails to activate the filter could face a $50,000 civil fine. If anyone other than a parent disables a filter, he or she could face a $5,000 criminal fine.

Without discussion, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted to introduce the bill from Republican Sen. Kevin Cook. The bill could come back to the committee for a full public hearing at a later date.

A year ago, the Senate rejected a similar proposal from Cook, on a narrow 18-17 vote.

Higher education contracts bill

Senate State Affairs also introduced a trio of bills on state purchasing, pushed by the state’s Department of Administration.

One spells out the rules for Idaho agencies to sign contracts with the state’s higher education system.

State law allows agencies to enter noncompetitive contracts with a college or university. This bill would spell out the rules for a competitive process. State agencies would be required to find out if multiple schools wanted to vie for a contract, and seek proposals from each bidder.

These bills also could come back to the committee for a hearing.

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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