Idaho educators say they are being heard by Ybarra, praise her strategy

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra attends the Idaho Association of School Administrators 2015 summer meeting in Boise.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra attends the Idaho Association of School Administrators 2015 summer meeting in Boise. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Sherri Ybarra is laying groundwork that could reshape public education in Idaho.

She is doing it with growing support among lawmakers and educators — including some who opposed her election last fall, when she defeated Democrat Jana Jones to become state superintendent of public instruction.

Her weapon: Ybarra is listening and asking educators what should be done to make schools better.

And she’s opening pathways to give local school districts more say in how they improve instruction.

“We have the sense that our issues and our are opinions are being used at the ground level to help formulate what she is going to do,” said Geoff Thomas, superintendent of Madison School District in Rexburg and the recently named superintendent of the year by the Idaho Association of School Administrators. “The State Department of Education is taking the recommendations seriously.”

When lawmakers gather in January, they are likely to find a Sherri Ybarra far more eager to explain her vision for education in Idaho than the newbie superintendent who spoke before the Legislature’s budget committee last January for a scant 17 minutes on a budget crafted by her predecessor.

“I think last year it was more sitting back and watching,” she said. This year? “It will be less of a sideline sport for me.”

Sherri who?

Eighteen months ago, practically no one had heard of Ybarra, an administrator in the 3,500-student Mountain Home School District.

She surprised pundits and political observers by beating three other Republicans in the May 2014 primary.

Her general election campaign against Jones, a former state deputy superintendent, was blistered by news reports over her lack of voting in Idaho elections and allegations of plagiarism when Jones said portions of her website were copied into Ybarra’s campaign website. (Ybarra apologized to Jones).

Even after her narrow victory over Jones — by 1 percentage point — many people thought Ybarra was ill-equipped for the job and had won only because she was a Republican in a GOP-dominated state.

Ybarra, 44, acknowledged she faced a steep learning curve.

“In interviews, you probably noticed ... the less I said, the better, and I wanted to be done with it,” she said.

Through her campaign and after taking office, Ybarra said, she has stuck to two main goals: Listen to school districts and superintendents and teachers, and turn as much decision-making as possible back to them, because local districts know best how to educate their students. “Now people want to talk to me, and I want to have these conversations,’ she said.

Plenty to discuss

Ybarra is working on up to 15 bills to bring before lawmakers in January, along with a budget that must go to the Division of Financial Management in early September. Bills in the talking stages include:

•  Requiring the superintendent of public instruction to hold an education administrator’s credential and to have been involved in Idaho education. State law now requires a bachelor’s degree.

•  A temporary tax credit for teachers as an extra way to retain and attract them.

Valeria Aker, a special education teacher in the Nampa School District who worked in the superintendent’s office under Democrat Marilyn Howard a decade ago, supports requiring the additional credentials for future state superintendents.

“I could not be happier to see her saying that the state superintendent should hold proper credentials,” said Aker, who has served as a regional president for the Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers union. “It helps her to have credibility with teachers and administrators.”

State Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, a former school superintendent, supports Ybarra, but not on the superintendent qualifications issue.

“She is very interested it trying to find solutions,” he said. “ I think she’s working on the right things.” But when it comes to superintendent qualifications, “I think the people should be able to pick who they want.”

Tom Luna, former state superintendent of public instruction, was the first person without an education credential to get the superintendent’s job after a requirement that the superintendent have an education background was eliminated in the mid-1990s. That change was an effort to open the job to business and other people with different views than educators.

“It doesn’t hurt us to have a change agent,” said Kerby, who supported Luna. “Tom came in and we probably needed a change agent.”

Word of a proposed tax credit for teachers has not spread yet. The credit would go to teachers until the state career ladder — a system for granting salary increases to teachers based on evaluations — is fully funded. The bill would grant all teachers a $500 tax credit the first year. After that, only about 7,000 rural teachers would qualify. The credits would go up to $1,000 the second year, then gradually decline and end when the career ladder is funded.

“We need many strategies to assist districts and charter schools in their efforts to attract and retain teachers, particularly in the rural areas,” Ybarra said.

Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association president, isn’t sure itwould work. “I don’t know if it is a way to recruit teachers to rural districts,” she said. “I think it is going to take a lot more than that.”

Hearing from everyone

Ybarra wants to cut down the required reporting of data to the State Department of Education by school districts. She’s already eliminated some reporting requirements.

Changes such as these are a sign to Don Coberly, the Boise School District superintendent, that Ybarra is listening to concerns from districts about operations. “Every action I have seen her take thus far is true to what she said,” said Coberly, who backed Jones.

Ybarra is also winning friends over her concern about the Idaho Core Standards achievement tests in math and English. The standards are goals for what students should learn before they graduate from high school. The tests measure how well students are doing in grades 3 through 8 and in 10th grade.

Earlier this year, Thomas’ district in Rexburg balked at requiring students to take the exam because of its length and questions about its reliability.

Thomas voted against using Idaho Core Standards when he sat on the governor’s education task force in 2013. Even before then, parents were raising objections to both Common Core and the exam.

Stephanie Zimmerman, a Boise parent, has taken her children out of public school over concerns about Common Core and the tests. She has long criticized the plan to make passing the achievement test a graduation requirement for the class of 2019.

Zimmerman and others met with Ybarra in January to express their concerns, and both Thomas and Zimmerman found Ybarra willing to listen.

“Every communication was open,” Thomas said. “It was honest.”

Said Zimmerman: “ I think she is making a real effort to address those concerns. We are not going to see eye to eye everything. I feel like Sherri Ybarra and her staff have done a good job trying to put Idaho students and their well-being and parents’ concerns first.”

Thomas’ board reconsidered its decision not to administer the test after assurances from Ybarra that the state would take a hard look at it. The state could losemillions of federal dollars if the percentage of participation in the statewide exam falls under a required 95 percent.

Questions about the test

Ybarra said she worries that the test might hold too much importance in Idaho education. The exam — often referred to as the SBAC, for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium of states that developed it — is a one-time shot assessing student achievement, she said. “It’s a temperature checker,” she said. “There is more to life than the SBAC.”

At this point, she doesn’t think passing the tests needs to be a requirement for graduation.

Moreover, as she goes to work on a new school ranking system to replace the star system used under the Luna administration, Ybarra said she doesn’t think the test should be the dominant factor in judging how well schools perform. She favors multiple measures of student achievement over multiple times.

Ybarra said she is preparing well for the 2016 Legislature. She will propose a budget that accounts for nearly half of the state’s annual general fund appropriations.

In the early days, “I didn’t have time to think straight,” she said. “I am much more comfortable. This is what I was meant to do.”