Statehouse roundup, 3.15.23: Tension ignites over community college proposals

Three bills relating to the turbulence at North Idaho College are on their way through the Legislature.

After introducing one bill Tuesday, the House Education Committee introduced two more Wednesday morning — but not without some friction.

All three are sponsored by Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston.

The first proposal outlines a path for the State Board of Education to intervene at a community college that could lose its accreditation. The bill would allow the State Board to assume emergency authority over the college if patrons of the college’s district presented a petition with 1,000 signatures or more — the same number it takes to start up a college.

The State Board could only take over if an accrediting organization threatened or acted to suspend or revoke the school’s accreditation.

McCann’s second bill would revoke a community college’s property tax levy authority after two years of accreditation loss.

Both bills point to the uncertainties at NIC.

After a series of institutional and financial mishaps, the Coeur d’Alene-based community college could face accreditation loss. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NIC’s accrediting organization) issued a show-cause sanction in February, requiring the school to address its issues and report back to the commission before March 31.

Nothing in Idaho Code dictates how NIC’s tumult should be handled, according to McCann. And since the school is governed by a board of locally elected trustees, the State Board can’t intervene, which is what the North Idaho lawmaker wants to change.

But other North Idaho lawmakers took issue with McCann’s efforts, igniting a contentious debate.

Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the bill would erode the authority of locally elected trustees.

“This is just super disturbing to me,” said Price, obviously heated.

Rep. Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome, who presented the bill in committee, fired back . A former community college trustee himself, Nelsen suggested the interest of students at NIC has gone by the wayside.

“They deserve better,” said Nelsen. “If this RS tramples on a few people’s sensitivities…maybe they ought to consider the students a little more, instead of politics.”

The committee voted 12-4 to introduce the bill. Price, along with Republican Reps. Tony Wisniewski, Dale Hawkins, and Ron Mendive (all representing North Idaho) voted against the motion. McCann and the committee’s other North Idaho representative, Mark Sauter of Sandpoint, voted in favor.

House Education introduced the second bill by the same margin.

Tension in the committee carried through the end of Wednesday’s meeting.

Transgender bathroom bill advances

A contentious school bathroom bill is headed to the House floor, after a 14-2 vote in the House Education Committee.

Senate Bill 1100 would require school patrons to use the bathroom associated with the gender they were assigned at birth. The same rule would go for locker and dressing room use, and overnight accommodations for student trips. The bill makes exemptions for athletic coaches,  janitorial needs, medical emergencies, natural disasters and safety emergencies.

Students who are “unwilling or unable” to comply with the legislation would be able to obtain an accommodation from their school.

If passed, the bill would be the first legislative response to the outcry over a proposed policy at a Caldwell School Board meeting in January. Caldwell’s policy would have allowed students to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity, rather than biological sex. It has since been sidetracked.

SB 1100 received support Wednesday morning from several Idaho parents, including Sen. Chris Trakel of Caldwell.

The bill is a matter of student safety, according to Trakel. It isn’t transgender students who present a threat, he said, but potential abusers who might take advantage of gender identity-based bathroom policies.

One mother said her student developed chronic dehydration after not drinking water to avoid using the school bathroom. She placed the blame on transgender students who use the restrooms associated with their identity in her district.

In opposition, Amy Dundon of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Idaho chapter said SB 1100 is based on “hypothetical” problems. She argued the bill discriminates against transgender students.

“Instances of trans students harming other students — we have not yet seen that, we won’t see that,” Dundon told the committee.

The bill’s civil action clause took some heat from committee members who suggested it could encourage erroneous lawsuits against school districts. But most members, including some Democrats, agreed that districts need legislative guidance on hot-button issues like transgender bathroom use.

The committee voted 16-2 to send the bill to the House floor.

More from House Ed

House Education moved on two more bills Wednesday.

  • House Bill 309: A bill eliminating in-person instruction on election days for schools used as polling places is headed to the House. This is a revised version of a previous bill, and is backed by Secretary of State Phil McGrane. It’s intended to simultaneously boost student safety and voting access. The bill passed out of committee 14-2. 
  • House Bill 311: The committee unanimously advanced a bill allowing community colleges to access appropriations for bachelor’s degree programs and upper division courses. It is headed to the House floor.

$50 million CTE program passes committee, narrowly

A $50 million plan to expand career-technical education in rural Idaho survived a narrow vote Wednesday.

Supporters say House Bill 267 would help start up costly CTE programs — and prepare students for careers after they finish school.  “This is how we get that done, outside our urban areas,” said state superintendent Debbie Critchfield, who presented the bill along with Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale.

Much of the discussion centered on the costs — and the source of the money.

HB 267 would draw $50 million of one-time money from the in-demand careers fund, an $80 million-a-year pool of sales tax revenue, which lawmakers created in September.

Critchfield assured committee members that she would not be seeking additional funding in 2024 — and said it would probably take a few years to spend the $50 million.

But Sen. Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins, agonized about spending the $50 million, and said she was worried the program would grow in the future.

“I love this bill, and I hate it,” she said.

Ultimately, Carlson cast a swing vote in favor of the bill, which passed on a 5-3 vote. The House-passed bill now goes to the Senate floor.

The committee roll call:

Yes: Sens. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls; Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise; Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise; Carlson.

No: Sens. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle; Brian Lenney, R-Nampa; Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton.

Absent: Sen. Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene.

Education accounting change heads to House floor

A bill to change education budget accounting is headed to the House floor.

In a rare meeting, the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved House Bill 296, which would change the way the state budget books address the $410 million of new education funding approved in September.

During a one-day special session, lawmakers approved the funding and created two new accounts for sales tax collections: a $330 million-a-year account for K-12, and an $80 million-a-year in-demand careers fund. HB 296 keeps these two sales tax funds intact, but it would allow the state to count the money as part of its general fund budget.

That’s a significant accounting difference. The general fund — taking in a combination of state tax collections — is the state’s go-to budget metric. Factoring in the special session dollars makes a big difference in education budget optics.

Gov. Brad Little’s K-12 budget proposed a 2.8% general fund increase, but his accounting doesn’t include the special session money.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s version of the budget, approved Tuesday, pegs the general fund increase at 16.4% — but that accounting folds the special session into the mix.

“We don’t have a position on the bill,” said Alex Adams, head of Little’s Division of Financial Management. “We have accounting questions about the bill.”

House Appropriation’s hearing was unorthodox.

The House committee and the Senate Finance Committee usually meet together as the 20-member JFAC. Officially, HB 296 was before House Appropriations Wednesday, although Senate Finance members attended the hearing. Committee debate was brief, but Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said the move could leave the new K-12 dollars vulnerable during an economic downturn, and subject to state budget holdbacks.

House Appropriations’ hearing also was open to public testimony, a departure from JFAC protocol. But no one testified for or against the bill.

House Appropriations approved HB 296 on a 9-0 vote. If it passes the House, Senate Finance would hold its own vote on the bill.

Community college budget passes Senate

The Senate passed a budget for the state’s four community colleges — a spending plan that cuts three administrative hires at embattled North Idaho College.

The budget bill would increase state funding for the community colleges to $60.9 million, up 7%. Community colleges also receive much of their funding from local property taxes and student fees and tuition.

The budget zeroes out three hires at NIC, which is facing ongoing questions about accreditation. The bill’s floor sponsor, Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, did not mention the $454,300 cut for NIC hires — but said the money will instead go to pay raises at all four colleges, including $118,400 at NIC.

No one debated for or against Senate Bill 1160. Several Panhandle Republicans opposed the bill: Phil Hart of Kellogg; Doug Okuniewicz of Hayden; and Scott Herndon of Sagle, who supported the budget during the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this month.

Also voting no: Republicans Cindy Carlson of Riggins; Dan Foreman of Moscow; Brian Lenney of Nampa; Tammy Nichols of Middleton; Chris Trakel of Caldwell; and Glenneda Zuiderveld of Twin Falls.

The bill passed 24-9, and now goes to the House.

Abstinence definition bill heads to Senate floor

Senate Education approved a bill to define abstinence in state code.

House Bill 228 defines abstinence as “the absence of any sexual activity prior to marriage.”

The bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins, and Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said their bill is an attempt to establish a traditional definition in code. By contrast, Ehardt said sex education curricula view abstinence as prevention of pregnancies or STDs. “(Students are) being taught how to practice safe sex.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, cast the lone dissenting vote, and questioned the reference to marriage. “I really don’t want to be the moral police for everybody in the state.”

With the committee’s party-line vote, HB 228 heads to the Senate floor.



Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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