Ybarra, a political newcomer, prevails in bid for state superintendent

The GOP nominee for state superintendent takes advantage of her nonpolitical campaign.

broberts@idahostatesman.comMay 22, 2014 

Sherri Ybarra

Idaho Republican leaders are embracing Sherri Ybarra, Tuesday's winner in a four-way primary for state school superintendent. It was a victory they can't explain by a candidate still carving out her identity.

Ybarra is "someone we are all going to spend some time getting to know," said Tom Luna, outgoing Republican superintendent of public instruction, at a GOP unity rally Wednesday.

Ybarra's triumph was a surprise to Boise political analyst Jim Weatherby, who noted that Ybarra showed "no signs of fundraising and no sign of any kind of campaign."

Ybarra was the only woman among the contenders. The 42-year-old federal programs and curriculum director for the Mountain Home School District defeated Randy Jensen, an American Falls Middle School principal; John Eynon, a music teacher in the Cottonwood School District; and Andy Grover, the Melba School District's superintendent. It was her first bid for elective office.

She will face Democrat Jana Jones, 61, who lost to Luna in 2006 by a narrow margin.

Ybarra got 28.5 percent of the vote in a light turnout. The others each received around 24 percent.

Nearly 20,000 more people cast votes in the governor's race than for superintendent.

Said Russ Fulcher, the Meridian legislator who lost his challenge to Gov. Butch Otter: "Holy cow. Ybarra for superintendent? I was on this campaign trail start to finish. And she might be a fine person, but she was not engaged. She was not engaged heavily in this campaign."

Ybarra said she did campaign in places such as Jerome, Hailey and McCall. She also appeared on several televised debates, emphasizing that she is an educator, not a politician.

"I'm just a different kind of person," she said.

Her victory "may very well have been of the luck of the draw among unknown candidates," said Weatherby, the retired director of Boise State University's Public Policy Center. "I don't think there is any clear mandate."

Jones raised $51,000 between January and May to Ybarra's $2,850. Jones reported $17,795 cash on hand on May 4, compared with Ybarra's $370.

"Money has nothing to do with my leadership ability. I've already proven that," Ybarra told the Idaho Statesman.

Ybarra said she has avoided stepping too far into the political world because her focus is on children. But she might soon hear lessons from supporters on politics in the Statehouse.

"I assume she'll have to learn to play the political game in order to be successful," said Star Rep. Mike Moyle, the House majority leader. "That's just how it is when you get in this building. It's a different world from what you think it is."

A Jones-Ybarra matchup will bring together two professional educators who are aligned on several major issues.

Both support Idaho Core Standards, the state's version of Common Core State Standards, a uniform list of what students should learn in English and math that has been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia.

But both have problems with the test that is based on Idaho Core Standards. Ybarra has called the test developmentally inappropriate because it's too long, lasting up to seven hours. Jones thinks the computer-administered exam gets in the way of measuring knowledge for young children who are wrestling with the test's technology.

Ybarra and Jones both support the 20 recommendations for improving education made by Gov. Butch Otter's education task force. They include boosting teacher pay and restoring money lost to school districts during the Great Recession.

The biggest difference might come in experience. Jones was chief deputy for the State Department of Education under Marilyn Howard, who served from 1999 to 2007.

"I know what it takes to work with the Legislature," Jones said. "I've done those things."

When she lost to Luna, it was 51 percent to 49 percent. She says she has learned how to be more strategic in raising money.

Ybarra is a question mark, Weatherby said.

"We will have to see how this campaign unfolds and how effective this candidate can be," he said.

Statesman reporter Dan Popkey contributed.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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