Idaho education groups find common ground during legislative session

Trustees, administrators and teachers speak as one for most of the legislative session.


They still are three separate groups, with distinct memberships - the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho Education Association, the state's teachers' union.

But these three groups together pushed for a teacher pay raise and teacher leadership "premiums." They endorsed a plan to begin reversing recession-era budget cuts. They supported a controversial pilot exam aligned with the new Idaho Core Standards. A year after battling publicly over a series of labor laws, they even agreed about keeping three of the laws on the books for another year.

And the stakeholder groups agreed on two other points. They appreciated the improved working relationship, and know it will take effort to stay on the same side.


A year ago, the stakeholders' working relationship can best be described as complicated.

The IASA and the ISBA were sponsoring bills directly modeled after Proposition 1, the collective bargaining overhaul rejected by voters the previous November. They said their membership needed the financial and decision-making flexibility the legislation would provide. The IEA opposed most of these bills, labeling them as a series of "teacher attacks."

At the same time, the groups were at the table, as part of Gov. Butch Otter's education reform task force. The 31-member task force did not discuss labor issues - the group's chairman, State Board of Education member Richard Westerberg, declared those off-limits at the start of the first meeting. The group instead worked on other topics, from teacher pay to school funding to technology, and forged nearly unanimous consensus around a far-ranging list of 20 recommendations.

IASA executive director Rob Winslow, ISBA executive director Karen Echeverria and IEA President Penni Cyr served on the task force. Since August, when the task force wrapped up its work, the three advocated for the group's most spendy recommendations: a teacher career ladder that could cost slightly more than a quarter billion dollars; and restoring $82 million in district "operational funding" cut during the recession. But they maintained that the state needs to implement all 20 recommendations, and not pick and choose from the list.

Meanwhile, the stakeholders began working through differences on labor issues. Echeverria recalls one long meeting last summer to work through language to tighten the grievance process for non-certified staff, and tweak the appeal hearing process. "It wasn't an easy morning," she said. "(But) from there forward, I think we just opened up the lines of communication."

The result: Two bills that had consensus support from education groups and passed the Legislature easily.


For the most part, the stakeholder groups appear poised to get almost everything they wanted.

The K-12 budget would restored district "operational funding," a high priority for the school boards and administrators. The budget included teacher leadership pay, a first step on establishing a career ladder. The budget also includes a 1 percent pay raise for teachers, a key bargaining point for the IEA.

Meanwhile, a legislative fight over the Idaho Core Standards never materialized. Some lawmakers grumbled about the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exams designed to support the new standards, but the field test will roll out next month basically as planned.

The smooth session wasn't just a function of stakeholder harmony. Legislators have had more money to spend, said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, a retired teacher and a member of Otter's task force. Many of the 2013 labor laws grew out of desperation; when the bulk of school budgets go to teacher pay and benefits, districts had no other place to look for savings.

"We all knew … that we were starving our schools to death," she said. "I think last year was just a tough year."

House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, an Eagle Republican and task force member, saw a "big change" this session. When education groups agree, he said, lawmakers aren't put in the awkward position of having to play referee.

But that doesn't mean the stakeholders have always gotten their way. The House passed two bills that drew unanimous and vocal stakeholder opposition: a bill to rewrite the staff evaluation process, routed through DeMordaunt's committee; and a bill offering $10 million in tax credits for private school scholarship donors.

Both bills were sidetracked in the Senate. Still, Echeverria notes that lawmakers have clamored for education groups to get on the same page, so it rankles her when lawmakers go their own way.


The stakeholder groups haven't always agreed. For example, the IEA opposed a bill allowing rural school districts to hire spouses of trustees; the ISBA supported it.

But that was a minor difference of opinion compared to 2013. And the groups seem to recognize that tougher discussions loom.

Two of the three labor laws, extended for one more year, remain contentious. The IEA agreed to an extension - but only to see how they're working on the ground. "We're all wanting to collect data and analyze that data," Cyr said.

The employee grievance bill - which attempts to spell out the grounds for a complaint, while striking the words "unfair treatment" from code - enjoys fragile consensus support. The IEA has signed on, but says it wants to see how, or if, the new language works.

The mechanics of a career ladder still need to be worked out. A State Department of Education committee is working on the teacher licensure system, the linchpin for determining where teachers would land on the salary structure. DeMordaunt hopes the consensus holds, but he knows the groups have agreed only on the broad strokesof a career ladder. "There is probably going to be more debate."

But the stakeholder groups are starting to discuss the labor issues that could surface in 2015.

"I think it's really healthy for the whole system," Winslow said. "We're going to work to keep it going."

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