Is Ybarra a leader for schools, or glorified secretary?

Next year’s race for superintendent of public instruction, sarcastically speaking, should be highly entertaining … if key legislators are correct with their analysis.

Forget about any compelling discussions about “vision” and “leadership” for public schools, legislators say, because a superintendent has none of those responsibilities. The function of a superintendent includes serving as a secretary to the State Board of Education, carrying out board policies and having a seat on the Land Board.

It’s mundane stuff, for sure. But Sen. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville and Wendy Horman of Idaho Falls, both members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, say that’s what the Idaho Constitution prescribes. Nothing is stated about a state superintendent being a leader for public schools, let alone managing a state agency with a $40 million budget.

So, as they see it, the unquestioned leader for public schools is State Board President Debbie Critchfield – who sits on a board appointed by the governor – and not Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, an elected constitutional officer.

The pecking order was defined, or reaffirmed, this summer by the high court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Ybarra, contesting the Legislature’s decision during this year’s session to yank 18 full-time IT and data management jobs from Ybarra’s department and transferred those positions to the State Board. Lawmakers also shifted $2.7 million from the education department to the State Board.

Ybarra, feeling “blindsided” by the action, contended that the Legislature usurped her constitutional authority. She filed a lawsuit, hired former Attorney General David Leroy to represent her, and off to the Supreme Court they went. The Legislature, which overall has a dismal track record in the courts, ended up winning this one.

But Leroy says legislators are off base with their interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling. He says the implied constitutional powers, which cannot be taken away by legislative action, remains in place.

“They (the justices) just said that managing this technology group was not one of those strong implied powers. We have a superintendent empowered by the constitution to lead and deal with the public schools, period. Where that interfaces with the State Board of Education, I guess, is to be determined on a case-by-case basis,” Leroy said. “The decision was not a blow to the constitutional base of the office, but it continues the confusion of what the line of demarcation is as far as the public schools are concerned between the superintendent, State Board and the governor’s office.”

And the confusion is running rampant. If Critchfield is in charge of the public schools, then Ybarra is little more than a glorified secretary who takes marching orders from the State Board and runs for election every four years. It may take a few more lawsuits to clear everything up, but for now legislators think they are on solid ground with their views – which do not align with Leroy’s.

“Clearly, we have a Supreme Court decision that repeats what the Constitution already says – that the State Board is charged with the general oversight of public education,” says Horman.

Crabtree, while agreeing with Horman, says Idaho’s “business model” for public schools is flawed.

“I don’t blame Sherri for the business structure in Idaho,” says Crabtree. “The problem is that we have an odd business structure – a completely separate politically elected person sitting on an appointed board. It doesn’t make common sense to me, and I don’t think it benefits the kids. If it does, then why aren’t other states stealing our ideas. I think that only one state has this kind of structure. If stealing ideas is a form of flattery, then nobody is doing that.”

Crabtree makes a good point. Changing the business structure won’t be easy, since it involves amending the Constitution, but it’s worth discussing.

When the question is asked about who is in charge of the public schools, it is neither the state superintendent, nor the State Board president. The lead player is the governor, who runs on education platforms and ultimately is judged according to the quality of the public schools.

Since the governor appoints members of the State Board, it only would make sense for him to appoint the state superintendent as well.

Chuck Malloy

About Chuck Malloy

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at [email protected]

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