BOISE — The two candidates vying to lead Idaho’s public school system, incumbent state Superintendent Sherri Ybarra and challenger Cindy Wilson, both touted their experience and efforts to build a stronger foundation for schools during a debate on Idaho Public Television on Friday night.
The candidates took questions on a range of school topics, but the evening began with questions about a campaign fundraiser Ybarra held that was hosted at a bar by a former principal who lost his teaching certificate over multiple allegations of sexual harassment.
Ybarra, a Republican, answered questions about the event by saying, “Voters of Idaho tonight are here not to talk about campaign events or dredge up things that were seven years ago, we’re here to talk about education.”
Wilson, a classroom teacher in districts large and small across Idaho for 33 years, responded, “Our job is to be the chief of schools and to be a role model for children. I’ve been trying to live my entire life as someone students can look up to.”
Responding to a question about school safety, Ybarra boasted about her $20 million school safety proposal, saying it’s actually been long in the works and is the third phase of an anti-bullying initiative. Ybarra said parents and educators had a key role in giving feedback on her “Keep Idaho Students Safe” proposal.
Wilson, who also served on the governor’s education task force and sits on the state Board of Correction, said that was a misrepresentation. Wilson said key stakeholders such as parents, educators and administrators were not involved in Ybarra’s plan, and neither was the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security, which state lawmakers established in 2016.
“Our children’s safety should not be a political issue that’s thrown around like this,” said Wilson. A parent committee convened by Ybarra was merely presented with the $20 million plan, she said. “They had no input, no say.”
Wilson said rather than $20 million, the cost of her school safety and security plan is zero — because that state office already is implementing plans, including a just-received $400,000 federal grant and addressing students’ mental health issues.
Ybarra said just in the past week, she brought in a principal from Columbine High School, site of the notorious mass shooting, and he said she was doing “everything right.”
“The most important part of the initiative has to do with training, training, training,” Ybarra said, talking over Wilson as she asked her, “Ms. Ybarra, did you contact the Office of School Safety?”
When asked about under-served student demographics such as Hispanic families, Native American families, low income families and students in rural areas, Ybarra listed rising statistics of test scores, literacy rates and graduation rates under her term as superintendent.
“There’s a lot of great work happening to ensure we meet our 60 percent goal,” said Ybarra about the statewide 60 percent college degree or technical certificate goal.
Wilson contended that gaps for those demographics haven’t improved under Ybarra’s tenure.
Pressed on whether a roughly 2 percent increase in graduation rates is reflective of genuine improvement, Ybarra said, “An increase is an increase.”
Both candidates spoke out in favor of continuing the career ladder teacher pay system that Idaho’s been phasing in as part of a five-year plan to improve education and both agreed Idaho education is not doing enough to push for high teacher pay. Idaho is in the fourth year of the plan.
Wilson said she was in support of shifting money from programs in the state’s budget toward educator compensation.
When asked about state-mandated early childhood programs, Ybarra said she is not supportive of such efforts.
Wilson supports state-funded early childhood education programs, saying, “We know that preschool is helping tremendously in the districts it’s been implemented.”
Wilson said that’s the key to boosting the demographics with gaps in achievement: Reaching out to them in the early years.
When asked their views on Proposition 1 — relating to historical horse race betting machines — and Proposition 2 — which would expand Medicaid — Wilson voiced support for Medicaid expansion but said she was against the betting machine push, because she said it didn’t generate enough money for schools and she was concerned that it may be unconstitutional, as suggested in an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion.
Ybarra declined comment on both.
Idaho Press Boise bureau chief Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.
Riley Bunch is the night digital reporter for the Idaho Press. Reach her at 208-465-8169 or follow @rebunch8 on Twitter.