Idaho's state schools superintendent candidates speak on Legislature

Five educators seek to follow Tom Luna as Idaho's top school administrator.

IDAHO EDUCATION NEWSMarch 30, 2014 

When it comes to grading the 2014 legislative session, the five candidates for state schools superintendent are all over the bell curve.

Republican John Eynon gave the session a C - for failing to address concerns over Idaho Core Standards and for following Gov. Butch Otter's education task force down the path of implementing pieces of the rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3.

Democrat Jana Jones handed out a C, but for decidedly different reasons. She chastised the Legislature for doing nothing to prioritize the task force recommendations "in any meaningful way."

Republican Andy Grover split his grade. The Legislature deserved an "A" for finishing its work in 74 days, the shortest session since 2004, and a "B" on education.

Republican Randy Jensen gave the session an "A," and said he had "no serious concerns" with the outcome.

Republican Sherri Ybarra declined to give a grade. But like other candidates, on both sides of the aisle, she commended lawmakers for boosting the K-12 budget; the 5.1 percent spending increase is the most robust since 2007.

Idaho Education News asked the five superintendent's candidates to critique the session - what went right and what went wrong for K-12 - but also to look ahead. It asked the candidates what they consider to be the top priority facing the next state superintendent, and how they would approach it.

The four Republicans will square off in the May 20 GOP primary. The GOP nominee will face Jones in the Nov. 4 general election. And when the 2015 legislative session convenes next Jan. 12, one of these five likely will be sitting in the superintendent's post.

Here are a few highlights:

EYNON: The Grangeville music teacher called the 2014 Legislature a "hold-harmless" session that made a few modest moves on ag education, dual enrollment, building safety and the paint color of buses retired from a school's motor pool. If elected, the critic of the new Idaho Core Standards pledges to reconvene and revamp the governor's task force - and "appoint committee members with the view that the best government is the one that governs least, and restore local control of our schools."

GROVER: The Melba superintendent said the 2014 Legislature enabled districts to award pay raises, implement school-safety plans and stretch their budgets. Grover said he would like to see more focus on the task force recommendations, because the fully funded plan could reduce districts' reliance on voter-approved property tax levies.

"By implementing and properly funding the 20 recommendations, I believe we can fund schools at an appropriate level where levies become a choice, not a necessity," he said.

JENSEN: The American Falls school principal praised the Legislature for restoring $35 million in district operational funding; lawmakers cut $82.5 million from these budgets during the recession.

"Almost every district in Idaho was in need of an increase in operational funding and there was a good support in that area," he said.

If elected, Jensen said, he will focus on establishing a teacher career salary ladder, a $253 million plan that represents the task force's costliest recommendation.

JONES: The former deputy state superintendent said the 5.1 percent K-12 budget increase represents "a step in the right direction." But she chastised the Legislature for ignoring pre-kindergarten and passing a guns-on-campus bill that could open the door to arming K-12 employees. A lot of work awaits the next superintendent, said Jones: "Budgets and vital programs have been cut, classrooms are overcrowded, local control has been diminished, and trust has been lost."

YBARRA: The Mountain Home educator didn't specifically criticize any moves made by the 2014 Legislature. She pledged to work on implementing the task force's recommendations.

"I would approach that by working with stakeholders to prioritize which recommendations will be implemented first and start working from there," she said.

She also pledged to reduce school testing requirements and adopt a "transitional accountability system" aligned with the Idaho Core Standards.

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