State schools chief Luna won't run for re-election

January 27, 2014 

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna talks with the media GOP headquarters Tuesday Nov. 6, 2012 at the Riverside Hotel in Garden City, Idaho.

CHRIS BUTLER — cbutler@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna won't run for re-election this year, clearing the way for Democrats and Republicans in a race for an open seat.

Luna said Monday he decided not to run, feared his candidacy would become a political distraction and take away from his efforts to implement recommendations of a recent task force.

Luna says he's talked with former Republican state Sen. Melinda Smyser, wife of a prominent Capitol lobbyist, about running if he doesn't. But he said he's not yet ready to endorse anybody.

Smyser, who attended Luna's press conference Monday but left quickly, couldn't immediately be reached.

What Idaho media are saying today:

From Betsy Russell, (Spokane) Spokesman-Review:

Luna said he wants to take politics out of the process of putting into effect bipartisan school reforms recommended by a state task force this year.

“I know it’s the right decision for me, for my family, and I know it’s the right decision for the children of Idaho,” Luna said. “I’ve never avoided a fight. I’ve always done what I thought was right.”

Luna, whose sweeping “Students Come First” school reform laws were repealed by voters last year, maintained that the proposals, which called for a new focus on online learning, a laptop computer for every high school student and rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights, were the “disruptive force” that enabled Idaho to finally move to a bipartisan approach to school reforms.

This year, 20 sweeping recommendations from a task force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter have gained widespread support, though it’s not clear how the state will fund the $350 million in changes, including a pricey new pay system for teachers, over the next five years.

“I think Students Come First got us to where we are, and if there’s any political fallout, I’m comfortable with it,” declared Luna, 55.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the Senate Education Committee chairman, said he would have supported Luna for re-election, but he understands his decision. “I agree that certainly his efforts so far this legislative session have been characterized as an attempt to enhance his re-electability,” Goedde said.

Now, Goedde said, “I think the superintendent is in a position that he can be more forceful in trying to see those recommendations move forward.”

Luna has served two terms as state superintendent, the first non-educator ever to be elected to the post.

He said he has no particular plans for after he leaves office. “I’ve got a business I can go back to,” he said. “I’m not making this decision today because I know what I’m going to do 11 months from now.”

Two other Republican candidates, Randy Jensen, a middle school principal from American Falls and John Eynon, a music teacher from Cottonwood, already have announced their candidacies in the GOP primary for superintendent; Democrat Jana Jones, whom Luna narrowly defeated in 2006, former chief deputy state superintendent, also is running.

Luna said he’s not yet endorsing anyone for the post. “I will tell you that the person I will support is the person who stands up and boldly proclaims their support for all 20 recommendations of the task force and their commitment to get them implemented,” he said.

Luna was joined for his announcement by House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, along with House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt and Goedde, all Republicans, and Luna’s wife Cindy.

Luna said, “I’m going to be working hard for the next 11 months, not being distracted with a campaign and everything that goes into that.”

He said it was “obvious to me that bipartisan support is fragile,” and people might think anything he does to support the task force recommendations is meant to “give me a leg up in the election. … So I wanted to take that off the table.”

Said Luna, “You won’t see me on a ballot anywhere in Idaho in this upcoming election.”

From Kevin Richert, Idaho Education News:

Luna’s announcement comes as a surprise. For the past year, Luna had told reporters that he was planning to seek re-election.

And the news could throw the race for state superintendent wide open. Two Republicans have announced a run — Cottonwood music and drama teacher John Eynon and longtime American Falls principal Randy Jensen — but neither have the political experience or statewide name recognition of Luna. Democrat Jana Jones has announced her run for superintendent; eight years ago, she captured 49 percent of the statewide vote in a loss to Luna.

Luna’s decision represents a changing of the guard in the GOP, as it heads into a May 20 primary. For the first time since 1998, Republicans will have a candidate other than Luna running for the state superintendent’s post.

Luna first ran for the post in 2002 — losing to incumbent Marilyn Howard in the November general election, in the last statewide campaign won by an Idaho Democrat.

Luna captured the post in 2006, narrowly defeating Jones, a top aide to Howard. Luna was re-elected in 2010, defeating former Boise schools Superintendent Stan Olson.

The 2014 race would have been Luna’s first appearance on a ballot since the Students Come First controversy. Luna’s three education overhaul laws passed the 2011 Legislature, but were resoundingly overturned by voters in November 2012.

In the wake of the repeals, Luna still had repeatedly said that he was planning to seek a third term in office — including, most recently in a Dec. 20 interview with Idaho Education News.

“When you’re a sitting office-holder, you don’t have go through the process of creating a committee and filing paperwork (that a challenger would have to go through),” Luna told Idaho Education News’ Clark Corbin at the time. “I’ve made it clear I plan to run for reelection. I’m raising money and suspect that some time at the end of January we will do a formal press conference here where you make the announcement official.”

And in testimony at the Statehouse this session, Luna has sounded like an officeholder with long-term objectives. He has talked repeatedly about the need to set up a teacher salary ladder — a key recommendation from Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force — and the complicated teacher licensing structure to support it. Luna has also renewed his call for collecting taxes on Internet purchases, as one vehicle to pay for the $350 million to $400 million in recommendations from the task force.

What you said:

Statesman readers shared their thoughts on Luna on our Facebook page before and after his announcement Monday. Their responses included the following:

Michael Long: "I don't really have an opinion on Luna but, I support the decision of any elected official to leave office after one or two terms. It's important to keep the seat dynamic and active. Bravo for imposing his own term limit, for whatever reason. New blood is a great idea, now let's work on the other several hundred career politicians, good bad or otherwise."

Luanne Hay Ostrow: "There IS hope for Idaho schools! Thank you!"

Megan Blakeslee Rambo: "Luna did a lot of good things that could have helped Idaho had they remained the law. He also did some things that I don't agree with. He also came and to visit our little school in Cottonwood to see how well we run a small school with a very limited budget and to see how well our online classes work. Sometimes we choose to only see the bad in a person. I wish people would also look at the good."

Becker J. Gutsch: "We have no place to go but up and we cannot do it with the man in charge that put us at the bottom."

David Nelms: "Politically he would be better off not running. If his goal is to get a DC appointment of some kind, NOT losing his last election would help."

Linds Denise: "I'll vote for anyone but him!!!"

Brian Vermillion: "He is definitely running. Hopefully he and otter will get trounced."

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