Ybarra targets rural schools, reading and math with budget proposal

Sherri Ybarra, state superintendent of public instruction, wants a dozen new math coaches, rural education centers to assist small school districts, a revamped primary grade reading indicator, and more career counselors for students.

In a nearly hourlong presentation before the Legislature’s budget committee Thursday, Ybarra laid out her goals in a budget that is smaller than one proposed by Gov. Butch Otter earlier this month.

A year ago, Ybarra was criticized for her 17-minute presentation at her first appearance before the budget committee. This time she seemed to poke fun at that moment. As she started her presentation before the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, she told lawmakers: “I have a lot to say.”

She worked on the budget for a year — she has said she was simply introducing her predecessor’s budget last year — and had meetings with a variety of education stakeholders.

Ybarra said she was “very relaxed and very comfortable” after her Thursday presentation. “Lawmakers knew the exact direction we were going,” she said.

“She did such a thorough job,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a budget committee co-chair.

Ybarra is proposing a $110 million, 7.5 percent increase in her budget over last year, compared to Otter’s $116 million, 7.9 percent increase.

Ybarra said she had several conversations with Otter about the school budget, but didn’t move to change her proposal after the governor’s State of the State address. Otter proposes doubling a $5 million request by Ybarra for a reading initiative.

“If JFAC gives us more money, as the state superintendent of public instruction it wouldn’t make much sense for me to turn that down, would it?” she said.

Idaho’s two-decade-old reading improvement program has produced fourth-grade classes with just two-thirds reading at grade level. “We need to refresh and restart,” Ybarra said.

Other Ybarra proposals:

Career counselors, $1.75 million: Counselors could help guide students to education beyond high school, which could improve Idaho’s high school graduation rate of 77.3 percent.

Math coaches, $1.76 million: A dozen coaches would work with teachers across the state to improve math instruction and make sure it follows the Common Core standards.

Technology, $15 million: More money for districts to develop their own plans for putting more technology in classrooms. Request is up $2 million from last year.

Rural school centers, $300,000: Six centers to serve the 70 percent of school districts that are rural in Idaho. Centers would work on issues identified by schools in each region, such as early learning or dropout prevention.

Restore school operations money, $30 million: The dollars would put schools back at the 2009 level for discretionary money used for benefits, utilities and curriculum. Those dollars were cut during the recession. The 2009 target was established by Otter’s education improvement task force.

Career ladder, 13.9 percent increase of $98.1 million: Fund the second year of a five-year career ladder for teachers, a plan to improve beginning instructor pay in Idaho. New this year: Employees such as school psychologists, counselors and school nurses would be added to the career ladder and taken off the old payment system, resulting in a net increase of $56.4 million.