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Trustees have been thrust into the K-12 limelight — for good or bad

Untangling Education

It was 2017, and I wondered if Bonneville School District’s superintendent and a school board member were coming to blows.

“Get out of my face,” then-superintendent Chuck Shackett told trustee Greg Calder during a board meeting.

Calder told the superintendent to “be more professional.”

Their dispute: how to ask local voters to bankroll a school construction project. The request: a cool $60 million.

Tensions were palpable. A red-faced board chair called the men to order. Then he, Calder and three other trustees voted 4-1 on a final decision. The meeting ended, Calder walked out one door and Shackett out another.

The exchange was intense, but it wasn’t the night’s big news. The big news was that East Idaho’s biggest district would float a bond issue for at least $60 million. Again. Bonneville was already mid-construction on a high school with a nearly $65 million price tag up the road.

Still, the back-and-forth between Shackett and Calder signaled the heated environment school board meetings are capable of creating — a reality that’s ramped up during a pandemic marked by fierce debates over school closures, mask mandates and more.

COVID-19 has put Idaho’s K-12 trustees in the limelight, raising more awareness — and more questions — about what they do and who they are.

Maybe the question is who they aren’t. The state’s roughly 1,000 school board members come from all walks of life. They’re farmers, attorneys, moms and dads, business owners — an eclectic batch of unpaid, locally elected officials who shape the K-12 landscape in a range of ways, including:

  • Drafting requests for bond issues and supplemental funds through local property taxes.
  • Developing local policies.
  • Hiring and firing superintendents.
  • Tracking student achievement.
  • Approving budgets and tracking expenditures.

That last one’s a biggie. Half of all state tax dollars flow to K-12, so oversight of more than $2 billion falls to trustees.

And like Bonneville, almost all of Idaho’s school districts rely on local funds to pad their budgets and cover construction projects. School boards float the requests, which come before voters during elections and have the capability of raising local property taxes.

Before COVID, bond issues and local funding requests dominated debate at board meetings. But school closures and mask mandates mixed in quickly as the coronavirus spread and state leaders left school COVID protocols to local boards.

Parents have since packed meetings to voice their views. Debate over claims of indoctrination in schools have fueled the tension, as typically quiet board meetings have been marked by protests, police responses and recall efforts over the last year.

“I am stepping down because I am exhausted and candidly want to protect my family and my employer from further harassment,” said Amy Johnson, a trustee who recently resigned from West Ada’s school board.

Over the weekend, a former trustee at one of Idaho’s biggest districts told me he’s glad he stepped down from his seat to take a job in a new town before the flurry of issues hit.

“I dodged a bullet,” he said with a sigh of relief.

But the pandemic and concerns about indoctrination have served as calling cards for others. Contested school board elections across Idaho made way for an influx of new board members this year. Forty-eight of Idaho’s 115 school districts had at least one contested trustee’s race in the Nov. 2 election, up from 40 districts two years prior. Nearly 30% of trustees’ races were contested, up from 23% the prior election cycle.

Three brand new trustees started on Nampa’s board this year, even as another experienced board member stepped down.

All the changeover and debate raises another question: How much training are trustees required to get?

In Idaho, none, though hundreds of school board members do seek training. The Idaho School Boards Association provides a range of opportunities through annual events and other resources, including support for boards searching for new superintendents.

Hundreds of trustees gather every year at ISBA’s annual convention in Boise to network, attend seminars and vote as a body on legislative priorities for the year. At least 500 showed up on the first day of the convention in November, ISBA employees told EdNews.

ISBA also connects trustees to lawmakers and other state leaders. The association’s annual Day on the Hill event gives boards a chance to meet with their local legislators and discuss issues impacting public education.

Inroads to state officials and legislators is another part of the trustee equation, especially this year. Every elected state office is up for grabs this November, including state superintendent of schools. This year’s Day on the Hill, which kicks off Monday, features a forum with current schools chief Sherri Ybarra and two Republican candidates vying to replace her, Debbie Critchfield and Branden Durst.

The event is exclusive for ISBA-member trustees, but EdNews will be there to cover it, so check our site Monday afternoon for the details.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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