Statehouse roundup, 2.14.24: NIC gets a breather in accreditation struggle

Budget-writers heard some encouraging news about troubled North Idaho College — and an urgent appeal for Idaho Launch funding from the president of the College of Southern Idaho.

On the last of two days of community college presentations, NIC President Nick Swayne said the college had a little bit of breathing room on accreditation.

College officials met with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities on Feb. 2, he said. The next meeting is slated for October, with a full hearing before NWCCU in January. The college needs to be fully compliant by April 2025 in order to retain accreditation.

North Idaho College President Nick Swayne

NIC’s accreditation has been in jeopardy for the past couple of years — due largely to dysfunction on its board of trustees and administrative churn. Swayne has been in the midst of this turmoil. Swayne was hired in June 2022, but a divided board of trustees placed him on paid administrative leave in December 2022, hiring an interim president. That means Swayne was on hiatus during the 2023 session; Tuesday’s meeting marked his first appearance before JFAC, 20 months after his hire.

The accreditation issue also casts a cloud over many aspects of NIC’s operations. If NIC were to lose accreditation, students would not be able to apply for state scholarships, or transfer future credits. Not surprisingly, NIC enrollment has continued to decline during the accreditation battle.

But that trend could be reversing. NIC’s spring enrollment is up nearly 13% from the previous year, Swayne said. Over the past decade, enrollment has steadily declined by 3% to 6% annually, he said.

But Swayne attributed the most recent declines to COVID-19, not NIC’s dysfunction. During the pandemic, community colleges across the country “sort of disappeared,” he said, losing enrollment along the way. This year’s increase reflects a concerted effort in recruitment, retention and marketing, he said. “Getting that word out has caused a dramatic increase in our enrollment numbers.”

NIC has about 3,800 full-time, degree-seeking students.

Meanwhile, in the Magic Valley, CSI sits at the epicenter of the Idaho Launch rollout.

By late December, half of the Magic Valley’s high school seniors had started a Launch application — the highest rate in Idaho, according to the state Workforce Development Council. About 1,300 students have indicated that they plan to go to CSI, and spend state grants of up to $8,000. President Dean Fisher told lawmakers.

But all of that hinges on a $70.8 million spending request. It’s up to the Legislature to fund the first year of Launch — a year after a deeply divided Legislature barely approved the grant program. The Launch budget could be one of the most contentious issues of the 2024 session. And a failure to fund Launch could leave colleges in the unsavory position of breaking the news to students expecting a share of the money, Fisher said.

“You’ve got thousands of students counting on us to serve them,” he said.

JFAC is scheduled to take up the Launch budget on Feb. 23.

A week later, on March 1, JFAC is slated to consider the community colleges’ $64 million budget request.

JFAC rebellion budgets returned to committee

The Legislature’s path to setting budgets is clearer, after a muddled period that saw the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee advance two slates of competing budget bills. 

On Wednesday, the Senate voted to return to JFAC budget bills that cleared the committee during a Feb. 2 revolt, when a bipartisan group flouted a new appropriation process implemented this year by co-chairs Sen. C. Scott Grow and Rep. Wendy Horman.

The rebellion bills would have funded agency spending requests in full, rather than breaking out new spending requests from a “maintenance” budget, as Grow and Horman’s process calls for. 

The House and Senate have each approved five “maintenance” budgets, so Wednesday’s vote was a formality to officially kill the JFAC revolt bills. Grow, R-Eagle, told the Senate that passing those budgets in addition to the already-approved “maintenance” budgets would “double-fund” agencies. 

It’s unclear how the Senate voted on Grow’s motion — the tally was a voice vote, rather than a roll call. Only Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow debated against it. “I think the body should be able to vote on those bills,” said Wintrow, D-Boise. 

House panel advances bill to strengthen bullying reporting requirements

The House Education Committee advanced a bill Wednesday to direct public school administrators to notify parents when their child is the aggressor or victim in a bullying incident.  

Idaho law directs districts to “undertake reasonable efforts” to report the number of harassment, intimidation and bullying incidents. But many districts don’t do it because there’s “no evidence” that policymakers “are taking those numbers and using them to take actionable steps to address the problem,” said Rep. Chris Mathias, who’s sponsoring House Bill 539

“Not only shall you continue to do that, but you shall also pay more deference to the needs of the families of students who are bullied,” said Mathias, D-Boise. “What this bill does is try to make the district’s time more worthwhile.”

The bill would direct school principals to notify parents when their child is involved in a bullying incident — either as the victim or aggressor. Principals also would have to give parents information on suicide prevention and limiting students’ access to tools to harm themselves or others. 

Officials from the Idaho Association of School Resource Officers and the Idaho School Boards Association testified in support of the bill during a public hearing. 

The committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the House floor, but lawmakers and school leaders raised some questions, including whether the new reporting requirements would pose an administrative and financial burden. 

Ryan Cantrell, chief deputy superintendent for the Idaho Department of Education, said the burden will be “difficult to quantify.” It depends on how much bullying is happening in particular districts and whether a district has to implement the reporting requirements from scratch. But the state department “absolutely” can support the effort, Cantrell told lawmakers. 

Rep. Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood, questioned whether information given to parents would recommend “control methods” for firearms. Hawkins also asked whether giving such content to parents would set them up for “a potential liability.” 

Mathias responded that he’s not concerned about liability and he pointed to research showing that most school shooters got the gun used in the attack from a family member. After a child is bullied, he said, there’s good reason for district officials to tell a parent with a gun in the house, “You might want to lock it up for the next few days.” 

Said Mathias: “I don’t know if any (school districts) will do it, but that sounds reasonable to me.”

Internet age-verification bill sails through House

The debate was short — and the vote unanimous — as the House considered a bill designed to keep children from accessing “harmful” online materials.

On a 67-0 vote, lawmakers endorsed House Bill 498, which will require internet content creators to verify the age of their users.

“We are trying to encourage these content providers to be self-regulating,” said Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene.

The bill allows parents to seek a civil penalty if content providers fail to follow the law.

It was the second floor vote this week on proposals to address online pornography. After lengthy debate Monday — and over objections from opponents who wanted to target content providers — the Senate passed a bill to require smartphone and device manufacturers to activate filtering software.

The House-passed bill now goes to Senate. The Senate-based bill still must pass the House.

Resolution encourages Holocaust curriculum guidance

A new bipartisan resolution, introduced Wednesday, would encourage the Department of Education to develop guidance for school curriculum on the Holocaust. 

The resolution, which would have no legal consequence, calls the Holocaust a “stain on human history” and urges the state department to consider adopting “age-appropriate” curriculum, professional development and guidance that helps schools effectively teach about it. 

“We all know what’s happening nationally, that sometimes we have people that deny certain things existed,” said co-sponsor Rep. Stephanie Mickelsen, R-Idaho Falls. “If we don’t learn from the past, we’re bound to repeat the same mistakes.”

Rep. Josh Wheeler, R-Ammon, and House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, are co-sponsoring the joint resolution, which requires approval from the House and the Senate. 

Committee members asked for more information before the proposal returns for a public hearing. Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, wondered about the current state standard for teaching the Holocaust. “You’ve got my curiosity as to why we need this resolution to begin with,” Berch said.

Bill to update terms of Opportunity Scholarship advances 

A bill that would update the terms of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship is heading to the House floor. 

The Opportunity Scholarship gives Idaho high school graduates $3,500 annually to stay in-state for college. House Bill 500 would: 

  • Return community colleges to the list of schools where the scholarship can be used.
  • Bar students from receiving both Opportunity Scholarships and Idaho Launch grants.
  • Lower the share of Opportunity Scholarships that must go to adult learners, from 20% to 5%. 

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, told the House Education Committee Wednesday that the percentage of adult-learner applicants has been much lower than expected — closer to 2% or 3%. He’s co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise. 

New IRI exemption bill corrects previous oversight

The House Education Committee also advanced a new version of a proposal to exempt some English language learners from the state’s reading test. 

Students who have spent less than two years in a school in the United States and who score low on the state’s English language proficiency test would be exempt from the Idaho Reading Indicator. 

A previous version of the bill, which reached the House floor, inadvertently included an exemption for a separate dyslexia screening. That was an “oversight,” bill sponsor Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise, told the committee. 

Kevin Richert and Ryan Suppe

Kevin Richert and Ryan Suppe

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

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday