Education

Consultants received more than $35,000 to work on failed Idaho school safety plan

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra spent more than $35,700 on consultants who worked on her failed school security proposal.

The $20 million Keep Idaho Students Safe initiative went nowhere at the 2019 Legislature, after Ybarra spent much of 2018 promoting the plan and making it a centerpiece of her successful re-election campaign.

The consultants’ bills — obtained by Idaho Education News through a public records request — nearly equal the annual starting salary for one teacher. An Ybarra spokeswoman defended the contracts.

“It is common practice for constitutional officers and state agencies to hire outside contractors on an as-needed basis,” Kris Rodine said in an email.

The money went to three parties:

Scott Phillips received $20,362.50 last fall to work on communications on the KISS proposal. The work ran through Nov. 26. The next day, Phillips joined Ybarra’s State Department of Education as a stakeholder communications officer, at an annual salary of slightly more than $90,000.

Forward Movement Training LLC received $7,875 last fall. The SDE hired the Meridian security consultants to work with law enforcement agencies and the state’s Office of School Safety and Security to help develop training plans for school security officers. The SDE’s contract maxed out payments to Forward Movement at $20,000.

Peppershock Media received $7,500 to produce a public service announcement touting KISS and securing airtime for the spot. The last payment to the Nampa-based company was processed on Jan. 23. The following day, the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee met to scrutinize Ybarra’s budget request. KISS did not come up in the committee’s lengthy question-and-answer session.

A key JFAC member said she was concerned by the consulting costs.

“That seems like a lot of money, when they already have a lot of staff to do that kind of work,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, a vice chair of the budget-writing committee. Horman, R-Idaho Falls, plays a key role in writing the state’s K-12 spending bills.

The consulting costs do not account for staff time spent formulating the KISS plan. That’s harder to quantify, especially since SDE staffers can wind up wearing a number of hats.

Matt McCarter was Ybarra’s point person on the KISS rollout. As SDE’s director of student engagement and career and technical readiness, McCarter’s responsibilities also include the advanced opportunities program, college and career advising, driver’s education and training and suicide prevention and response, among other items. McCarter earns $92,600 annually.

Despite Ybarra’s push, other state leaders did not embrace KISS.

Gov. Brad Little rejected the KISS budget request — which included $19.1 million for school security grants and safety courses for educators and school staff. The House Education Committee held one hearing on the proposal, but while the education committees have a big say in policy, they hold little sway over the budget.

In essence, when KISS went unfunded, it also went ignored.

Nevertheless, Ybarra continues to tout KISS in a banner on the top of her department’s home page. That banner links to a dated KISS webpage that makes no mention of the 2019 legislative session or the plan’s quiet demise.

This week, Rodine said Ybarra “will continue to gather input” on her plan, meeting with lawmakers and education groups and holding a school safety forum this fall.

“Superintendent Ybarra is continuing to refine her student safety initiative and continuing the conversation around how she can support schools in addressing safety issues,” Rodine said.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

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