Education

Meet the man who will lead Boise schools after 29 years in the district

Sherri Ybarra speaks to lawmakers about Idaho’s public school funding

Lawmakers gathered for a 'listening session' on a proposal for Idaho's public school funding. Sherri Ybarra spoke during the session.
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Lawmakers gathered for a 'listening session' on a proposal for Idaho's public school funding. Sherri Ybarra spoke during the session.

Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on July 18, 2019

Coby Dennis took a linear path to his new job as Boise School District superintendent.

His 29-year career in Boise schools includes stops as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, administrator and deputy superintendent — a good fit in a district that prefers promotion from within.

He comes from a family of educators. His father, Dehryl Dennis, was Boise’s superintendent from 1994 to 1999. A short walk from Coby Dennis’ office, the district’s technical education center bears Dehryl Dennis’ name.

Yet Coby Dennis is a fourth-generation educator who almost never went into teaching. On a break during his senior year at the University of Idaho, he told his mother he wasn’t happy as an engineering major, and said he wanted to teach and coach instead. At her urging, he switched his major and his life trajectory.

“It was really about me finding my passion,” Dennis, 52, said in a recent interview. “It was almost like I was looking for validation.”

That passion started Dennis on a career path that puts him in charge of a district with more than 25,000 students and 4,500 employees. He inherits a district that boasts higher-than-average test scores and college go-on rates. The district is working an ambitious plan to replace and refurbish schools, thanks to a $172.5 million bond issue that received overwhelming 86 percent voter support. But Dennis also faces challenges, including the pressure of declining enrollment.

‘We have a lot of people who have grown up in this district’

The only remarkable thing about Dennis’ promotion, perhaps, was how quickly it happened.

He accepted the job on Dec. 13, just eight days after Don Coberly announced his plan to retire, ending his 35-year career in Boise schools. Trustees interviewed only one possible successor: Dennis.

The optics aren’t lost on Dennis. “There’s a perception that we are insular.”

The perception isn’t entirely accurate, he says. The district does try to bring in new blood — and fresh ideas — at the school principal level. The district sometimes looks externally for “area directors,” administrators assigned to supervise one of four geographic quadrants. But Boise also tries to give its administrators a career path, while making sure its top managers know the district’s operations from within. Case in point: Dennis’ deputy superintendent, Lisa Roberts, was promoted after 26 years in Boise schools.

“We have a lot of people who have grown up in this district,” Dennis said.

Since starting his new job on July 1, Dennis has spent some of his time reaching out in the community — to old contacts such as West Ada School District Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells and new contacts such as Boise State University President Marlene Tromp, who also started her job on July 1.

“We’re in the relationship business,” said Dennis, who acknowledges that relationships can change with a new position.

‘There are times that you have to stand up for what you believe in’

Dennis says he wants to be a team player, working with his fellow Treasure Valley superintendents.

But the school superintendent’s job in the state capital carries some added visibility. In his nine years as Boise superintendent, Coberly was a Statehouse regular, the author of a periodic blog breaking down K-12 data, and a prominent presence in Idaho’s education debate.

“I think it comes with the territory of this job,” Dennis said. “There are times that you have to stand up for what you believe in, and I’m happy to do that.”

Where does Dennis stand?

Our Kids, Idaho’s Future. He said he is “excited” about Gov. Brad Little’s K-12 task force. The group’s recommendations, on early reading and college and career readiness, are due this fall. Boise, meanwhile, is working on its own literacy goal, which Dennis also hopes to roll out this fall.

The funding formula. After several years of study, Dennis hopes superintendents can coalesce behind a new funding formula, and if that happens, he hopes the Legislature will sign on. Dennis wants the state to provide extra funding for at-risk students — even if Boise loses some money in a shift to an enrollment-based model. “We can live with that, if we can understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Charter schools. As Boise wrestles with declining student numbers — a crucial metric, if Idaho changes to enrollment-based funding — the competition with charter schools takes on added urgency. Boise launched a marketing campaign in 2018, at a first-year cost of $175,000, in hopes of convincing parents to choose traditional schools.

Dennis says he’s optimistic that traditional schools and charter schools can coexist, but he says charters have drifted away from their original mission as innovators. “What it has turned into is a competition around kids,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s healthy.”

Details and decisionmaking

In his time as deputy superintendent, Dennis has worked on nuts-and-bolts matters: budgets, contract negotiations, facilities. Consistent with his detail-oriented nature, Dennis touts Boise’s newly earned AAA bond rating, a first for any Idaho public agency, and pledges to take a hands-on role to keep the district ahead of schedule on bond issue projects.

Dennis’ attention to detail and process made a believer out of School Board President Nancy Gregory.

She saw it firsthand in 2017, as trustees considered a change in Boise’s school calendar. Before a proposal could even come before the board, she said, trustees were besieged with emails from critics who didn’t want Boise to move up the start of the school year. Dennis preached patience, urging trustees to ride out the controversy and wait on a proposal.

It proved to be good counsel, Gregory said.

“We would have been in the weeds, inappropriately so,” she said.

In the end, trustees moved up the start of the 2018-19 school year by a few days, aligned the end of fall semester with the December holiday break, and ended the school year by Memorial Day weekend.

By virtue of the job, a superintendent is supposed to provide vision. Gregory believes Dennis can move into that role. She doesn’t expect him to make big changes, since he has had a hand in crafting existing district policies for years. But she believes Dennis and Roberts will be a strong leadership team, and she thinks Dennis has the temperament for the top job.

“He’s not afraid to discuss hard things, but he comes to any problem with respect for the key players,” she said.

‘I think it comes down to opportunities’

Dennis says he is slow to make decisions, and he says some people might criticize him for that. But he also says he tries to look at decisions through the prism of his first job: What are the ramifications for teachers and their students?

“We should never forget that piece of it,” he said. “It’s easy to let the politics of the day affect those decisions.”

But Dennis also views these same topics through a parent’s lens — and a policymaker’s lens.

His two children have taken different career paths. His daughter took advantage of Boise’s extensive Advanced Placement options, went to college, and is now a fifth-generation teacher. His son received an associate’s degree and is training to become an engineer.

Boise provides students with these options and more. But smaller, cash-strapped districts don’t have the money to provide AP courses or extensive career-technical offerings, Dennis says. And that won’t change until the state invests more in its schools.

“I don’t think my kids are any different than the kids that go to Kamiah or Preston,” he said. “I think it comes down to opportunities for those kids.”

Three things you didn’t know about Coby Dennis

  1. Dennis was born in Kuna. But he spent part of his childhood in Puerto Rico while his father taught there.
  2. Dennis’ office walls are adorned with Chicago Cubs souvenirs. But Dennis isn’t one of those bandwagon fans who adopted the Cubs after they broke their 108-year World Series drought in 2016. He became a fan in fourth grade, after his family moved from Puerto Rico to Galesburg, Ill.
  3. Even while making the transition to his new job, Dennis blocked off part of July for a trip to his vacation destination of choice: Alaska. His family gathers in Alaska every couple of years for salmon fishing.

 

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