Idaho's school superintendent candidates face full plate of issues

They lack political skills, but the four GOP hopefuls boast years of education experience.

broberts@idahostatesman.comApril 20, 2014 

  • THE JOB AT A GLANCE

    The state superintendent of public instruction oversees a $1.4 billion education budget, nearly half of the state's total budget.

    The money goes to educate 289,063 students in 115 school districts, plus charter schools. Duties include:

    • Producing a budget for public schools, which often competes with one from the governor.

    • Setting the political agenda for public eduction, often trying to woo the Legislature toward a particular education goal.

    • Serving on the State Board of Education, which sets policy for public education from kindergarten through college.

    • Serving on the Land Board, which administers state lands to receive the maximum possible income for public schools.

    The superintendent's salary will be $102,667 beginning Jan 1, 2015.

For everyone who has complained over the past eight years that Idaho needs a professional educator as state superintendent of public instruction, this is your year.

Three education administrators and one teacher are running in the May 20 Republican primary for the right to face Democrat Jana Jones in November. Jones, who is unopposed on the May primary ballot, is a former deputy state superintendent who lost narrowly to Republican Tom Luna in 2006. She has a background in early childhood and special education.

The winner in November will succeed Luna, a businessman who has held the office for two terms but never quite put to rest criticism that he lacked a background in education. Luna surprised Republicans in January when he announced that he would not run again.

If you don't know the Republican candidates' names, don't feel bad. They are political newbies who have spent much of their careers in the trenches of education.

But one of them could step into a job where working with the Legislature, teachers groups, administrators and trustee organizations will require a quick study in politics. And they'll take control of an office made high-profile by Luna, whose political skills and openly ideological bent toward Republican themes - accountability and reform that took a swipe at teachers - attracted the spotlight.

The candidates will encounter issues including:

• Education funding. School districts are trying to get back $82.5 million per year they lost during the Great Recession. This year, the Legislature restored $35 million. Districts say they need more.

• Teacher salaries. Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education has recommended a career ladder that would boost teacher salaries to as high as $60,000 a year. Estimated cost: $250 million. The State Board of Education is working on details.

• Idaho Core Standards. Three of the four candidates back the state's version of Common Core, a set of goals for what students should learn that has been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia.

Even those three see room for improvement in the standards, especially in the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the achievement exam being field tested in Idaho schools this month and next. The test is drawing criticism because it can take up to seven hours to complete.

GROVER: HIGHER TEACHER PAY AND IDAHO CORE WILL HELP EDUCATION

Andy Grover, superintendent of Melba School District, can step out of his office and see the whole district before him, from the elementary school to the Melba High School Mustangs football field.

Grover's district has 807 students and an $8 million budget, but smallness doesn't deter him. "The skills hold true as you go from this size district to a state size," Grover said.

Background: Grover, 42, was raised in Ririe. He is married with three children. Two of them attend Melba Junior-Senior High School. His wife, Candice, is a teacher in the district.

Moving to 4-star status: When Grover came to Melba in 2007 as the high school principal, the district wasn't meeting the state's academic achievement goals. Within a couple of years, budget cuts from the Great Recession forced Melba into a four-day school week.

But the district set aside every other Friday for teacher training. Grover devised a system in which teachers review each other's instructional techniques outside Grover's purview, so that the reviews don't become job-evaluation issues. Instruction improved. In 2012-2103, Melba's two schools received four stars in the state's five-star rating.

Why he backs Idaho Core Standards: "The biggest benefit is it sets high standards and is getting back to critical thinking," Grover said. "That's what (students) need to compete in the real world."

Testing issues: Idaho students are taking the Idaho Core Standards test now, but neither they nor their parents, teachers or school administrators will receive data from the test this year. It's a field test to benefit exam designers. In 2014-2015, schools will receive test results and will be held accountable for how well students perform. "Are there issues with it? Absolutely," Grover said. "But we can't even address the issues until we have some idea what it even means."

Teacher pay works: The state is working on a career ladder that establishes teacher pay starting at $40,000, up from $31,750 now. It would raise salaries based on teaching effectiveness and student performance. The career ladder could help a small districts such as Melba that must pay higher salaries to attract teachers in Southwest Idaho. Estimated out-of-pocket savings to Melba would be $140,000 because the state would pick up a greater portion of salaries.

What they say about him: Superinten-dents of 18 Idaho school districts, mostly small, endorse Grover. So does Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d' Alene, the Senate Education Committee chairman. Grover works well in legislative committees, Goedde said, but he still needs political assistance, "He will have a steep learning curve, and it will help to have a support staff with some expertise to get him started," he said.

JENSEN: LAUNCH A CAMPAIGN TO INCREASE EARLY READING

It's known around American Falls as Jensen's rule.

Randy Jensen, principal of William Thomas Middle School in American Falls, has a rule of thumb for kids headed into high school: Break up with your significant other after 30 days. The way Jensen sees it, boys and girls in school don't need the distractions from education that come with serious relationships. "You start dating for two to three months, (and) that takes over your life," he said. "I don't want them to have complicated lives."

Background: Jensen, 52, grew up in Pocatello. He has spent his 29 years as an educator at William Thomas, 25 of them as principal. He is married and has four children, one attending American Falls High School.

Test needs work: Idaho's adherence to making the student assessment of Idaho Core Standards a litmus test for student achievement is a mistake, Jensen said. A high-stakes test that determines whether students graduate or holds schools accountable for performance will drive curriculum. he said.

"You shouldn't rank schools based on one test," he said.

What he wants to do: He encourages parents to read to their young children 20 minutes a day. He wants to work with businesses to put "Read 20 Idaho" signs in their businesses or on their websites as a reminder. The goal is to get better readers among students coming into kindergarten.

"By the time they get to kindergarten, if they are behind, they are behind," he said.

Following what's best: William Thomas Middle School has a three-star rating in the state's five-star scale, which means Jensen must submit a report to the state on how the school is going to improve. He has submitted the report but says it doesn't necessarily capture what the school is doing to get better.

In 2013, the last year of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, for example, Jensen's school quit focusing on the ISAT and began preparing students for the Idaho Core Standards by emphasing more writing and critical thinking, he said.

What they say about him: When Wiley Dobbs, superintendent of the Twin Falls School District, began as the principal of O'Leary Middle School in the early 1990s, he copied a lot of ideas from Jensen. As one example, he assembled teams of teachers who shared the same students to foster better communication on progress. And he saw student performance grow.

"I give Randy a lot of credit for what we have in middle school," Dobbs said.

YBARRA: FOCUS ON EDUCATION THAT IMPROVES PERFORMANCE

West Elementary School in the Mountain Home School District was not meeting state academic goals when Sherri Ybarra took over as principal about four years ago.

For the past two years, the school has received four out of five stars in the state's rating system. Between 78 percent and 88 percent of its students were proficient or better in reading, math and language.

Background: Ybarra, 42, is married with a 13-year-old son at Mountain Home Junior High. She was a substitute teacher before she got a job in the district.

How she does it: Ybarra, who has worked for the district since 1996 and is now its director of curriculum and federal programs, said she maintains a fierce focus on what needs to be taught and what doesn't.

At West, "We sat down and focused on the math and what kids were being held accountable for," she said. In reading she brought in technology, a program called MyOn reader, which sorts reading material by level and interest. As curriculum director, she helped start the Reading with Ruffy program, in which 350 second-graders read to stuffed animals for 20 minutes a day. "Students can read to something that is nonjudgmental," she said.

Ybarra says those ideas are part of her belief in advocating for students - a central part of her campaign.

Reviewing Common Core: Ybarra supports the standards - "show me something better" she said. But she would pull together a cabinet with education professionals to review standards annually for what is working and what isn't.

Rethink testing: Idaho Core Standards testing takes too long and doesn't measure a child's growth, she said: "It is not developmentally appropriate. It doesn't allow for addressing the whole child."

More money for schools: Schools might have lost money during the recession, but Ybarra doesn't think they will get better just by having more money tossed at them. "You need to look at what's working and what's not and focus on that," she said.

What they say about her: Malissa Luke-Scaff, the parent of a third-grader at West Elementary, remembers when the school had a feeling of drudgery about it. "I likened it to a Dickens novel," she said. "It was very bleak." That changed when Ybarra became principal and opened her door to students, parents and faculty, Luke-Scaff said. She has seen improved academics, especially in math, a subject in which her daughter needs some attention. "Those kids were excited to go to school," she said.

EYNON: SHOW THE DOOR TO COMMON CORE

Spend a few moments with John Eynon, a music teacher in the Cottonwood School District, and you know exactly what he stands for in his race for superintendent: dropping the Idaho Core Standards. The sooner, the better.

"The way the standards were rolled out is anathema to the way government should work," he said. The standards weren't tested in advance, he said.

Background: Eynon is a retired U.S. naval commander who was on active duty for 15 years and was a mission commander on a P-3C Orion aircraft, which tracked Soviet submarines. He left the Navy in 1995 but stayed in the reserve until 1998.

Did he read the standards? "I have not read them cover to cover," he said. "I have read the ones that have been provided to us at professional development sessions."

What's wrong with them? Eynon said Common Core pushes a policy of centralized education. "That was the model for the National Socialist system of education. It was also the model for the USSR system of education, and I don't think we want to invite that to the United States."

The Statesman sent an email asking Eynon to furnish evidence linking the policies of Common Core with those of National Socialism and the former Soviet Union. He did not respond. "He won't be able to find it because it is not true," said Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

What would he do if elected? Work with the governor - he is backing Republican state Sen. Russ Fulcher, of Meridian - to defund Idaho Core Standards and drop the Smarter Balanced test that goes with it within 90 days of taking office.

Fulcher is running against two-term Gov. Butch Otter in the May 20 primary.

What would go in its place? A liberal arts approach to education, and growth in trades and agricultural education to help provide jobs for Idaho's economy.

How should schools operate? Locally. Decisions should be made by local boards and communities, Eynon said. That is a point on which he and Otter's task force agree. Districts say they want revenue from the state to run their districts as they see fit, while being held accountable to the community or the state for student performance.

More money for schools? Eynon said the $35 million the Legislature appropriated this year to start restoring recessionary budget cuts is just half of what the districts should have gotten.

Editor's note: Two days after Eynon gave an interview to the Idaho Statesman for this story, he canceled a photo session planned at Cottonwood. The session was also to include a short online video that would have been presented with our videos of the other candidates.

Statesman reporter Sven Berg contributed. Bill Roberts: 377-6408, @IDS_BillRoberts

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