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Army has completed Bergdahl investigation, will brief defense secretary this afternoon

The Army has finished its investigation into Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and plans to brief Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this afternoon, the Associated Press is reporting. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Lolita Baldor in Washington, D.C. There’s no word yet on the conclusions of the investigation; the report could include recommendations on whether the Hailey, Idaho soldier should be charged with any criminal violations or forced to leave the Army. He was captured by the Taliban and held by insurgents in Afghanistan for five years before being returned to the United States in a controversial prisoner swap last May.

Former Times-News reporter named paper’s new editor

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Matt Christensen has been named the new editor of the Times-News and Magicvalley.com in south central Idaho. Christensen is returning to the paper after starting his journalism career at the Twin Falls daily in 2005 as a features and natural resource reporter. Most recently, Christensen served as the editor of the Montana Standard in Butte since 2013. He was the city editor of the Winona Daily News in Minnesota from 2008 to 2011 and then city editor of the La Crosse Tribune in Wisconsin. Times-News (http://bit.ly/1zFCzNB) Publisher Travis Quast says Christensen brings experience in helping newsrooms evolve in a digital age. Christensen replaces Autumn Phillips, who recently became the editor of The Southern in Carbondale, Ill.

IEA chief on new career ladder plan for teacher pay: ‘A really flawed process’

Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, says her group has major concerns about the new teacher “career ladder” legislation endorsed yesterday by the state Board of Education, which would phase in substantial raises for Idaho teachers if they meet standards for evaluations and student achievement.

“First of all, it’s a really flawed process,” she said, adding that she and another teacher from the IEA served on the governor’s education improvement task force, but neither was invited to work on the career ladder legislation. “People haven’t been involved in this process,” Cyr said. “I’m sorry that they brought forward again another piece, just like the Luna laws, that hasn’t been vetted with the public and hasn’t included all of us working on it to bring it forward.”

“I think, too, that we’re going to continue our mass exodus of teachers from Idaho,” Cyr said. “Basically what we’re going to get is an inexperienced pool of teachers who, once they reach a point, they’re going to leave Idaho to go to other places that don’t base their pay on how their students perform or on their local evaluations. And I think at the hearings the public said loud and clear, local evaluations should be to help teachers grow as a professional. Charlotte Danielson (author of the evaluation framework tied to the new career ladder) never intended her model to be used in this way.”

Idaho jobless rate falls below 4% for first time since ‘08, as shift to service sector continues

Idaho’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell below 4 percent in November for the first time since early 2008, the Idaho Department of Labor reports. The 3.9 percent jobless rate in November was down two-tenths of a percentage point from October; a year earlier, it was 5.7 percent. The national unemployment rate remained unchanged in November from October’s level of 5.8 percent; there’s more info here.

Ada County came in at a 3.2 percent unemployment rate in November, up from 2.9 percent in October; Canyon County was at 4.7 percent, up from 4 percent in October; and Kootenai County was at 4.5 percent, up from 3.9 percent.

State Labor analysts are predicting that the average number of jobs for 2014 could be slightly higher than the previous peak in 2007; the numbers include a continued shift to service-sector jobs, which accounted for 84.5 percent of all Idaho jobs in November, up from 84.3 percent in October.

State Ed Board unanimously backs new career ladder plan for teacher pay

Idaho’s state Board of Education today voted unanimously to endorse proposed legislation to set up a “career ladder” for Idaho teachers, phasing in big pay increases if teachers meet performance standards. Funding for base salaries for beginning teachers would rise from $31,750 to $40,000 over five years, and for top-level teachers, from $47,000 to $58,000 for those at the top level. There also would be pay increases for attaining higher levels of education, at three levels: Bachelor’s degree plus 24 credits; master’s degree; and doctorate; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

In the first year of the implementation of the career ladder, the 2015-16 school year, beginning teacher base pay would rise from $31,750 to $33,600. Top level teachers’ base pay would rise from $47,000 to $47,803. “It is a little weighted for those just entering the profession,” said board spokesman Marilyn Whitney. The career ladder plan would be in addition to the $16 million that school districts are now authorized to receive each year for leadership bonuses for teachers recognized by their districts for everything from mentoring to teaching dual-credit classes to earning additional endorsements.

“The career ladder represents a major step forward in how Idaho pays teachers,” said Board President Emma Atchley. “Idaho public school salaries would become more competitive with other states and the private sector. We believe this plan will be crucial in attracting and retaining great teachers and will significantly improve the quality of education for our students.” Richard Westerberg, another board member and chairman of the governor’s education improvement task force, which recommended the career ladder approach, said, “The need and time for higher salaries is now. The plan provides for robust, effective and meaningful teacher mentoring programs and would allow districts to reward their best teachers.”

The career ladder, if approved by lawmakers and signed into law by the governor, would replace the current salary grid in which the amount of funding the state sends districts for teacher pay bumps up based on factors including 14 experience levels and seven education levels. Full details of the new career ladder, including the proposed legislation, spreadsheets showing its year-by-year impact, and explanations, are online here at the state board’s website.

Ybarra names special ed chief: Boise district’s special ed supervisor

State schools Supt.-elect Sherri Ybarra has announced another of the key staffers she’ll bring on when she takes office in January, Idaho Education News reports: Charlotte Silva, whose 30-year career in education most recently includes serving as the Boise school district’s special education supervisor, will be Ybarra’s special education director. Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News reports that Ybarra said in a statement, “The hiring of Dr. Silva demonstrates the commitment this administration and I will make to all of Idaho students. Students who enter Idaho’s education system with special needs face unique and difficult challenges every day. I believe Dr. Silva is an education professional whose experience will make a considerable contribution for all our special needs students. We are excited to have her join the administration.” Corbin’s full report is online here.

Fed agency betting $2M in taxpayer money that it’ll win Snake River dredging lawsuit

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is making a high-stakes bet that it will prevail in a pending lawsuit over Snake River dredging, NPR’s Northwest News Network reports, ordering its contractor to begin preparation work to dredge around Lewiston and Clarkston on Jan. 12, while a federal judge will hear arguments in a lawsuit over the dredging on Jan. 2. In a new court filing, writes reporter Tom Banse, Lt. Col. Timothy Vail, the Army Corps' district commander, estimated an injunction would leave taxpayers on the hook for “upwards of $2,000,000” to pay the contractor to mobilize and then demobilize.

A Seattle attorney for environmental groups that sued over the dredging, Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, told Banse, “The Corps is basically rolling the dice and assuming they'll come up in their favor. If it were up to me, I would wait to hear from the court before putting so much money at risk.” The Nez Perce Tribe also has joined the legal challenge to the dredging. Banse’s full report is online here at Boise State Public Radio.

Bogus Basin announces Friday opening

Bogus Basin has announced that it will open for skiing on Friday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with three chairlifts on the front side of the mountain operating: Deer Point (#1), Showcase (#4), and Coach (#7), along with the Easy Rider magic carpet and a small terrain park in Stewart’s Bowl. Lift tickets will be discounted to $35 for adults for the limited opening. A limited opening also is planned for the Nordic center, with tickets half-price at $11, or $8 for Nordic skiers who arrive after 1 p.m. Round-trip bus service will begin Saturday, as will holiday hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. through Jan. 4. Click below for Bogus’ full announcement.

Public invited to Monday retirement celebration for Ysursa in the Capitol

The public is invited to a retirement celebration on Monday, Dec. 22, honoring Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who is retiring after 12 years as Idaho’s secretary of state and 40 years in the office, including many years as chief deputy to then-Secretary of State Pete Cenarrussa. The celebration will be from 2-4 p.m. in the 2nd floor rotunda of the state Capitol, and is intended to wish Ysursa “Agur Eta Zorionak!” That’s Basque for “Goodbye and Good Luck in Your Retirement.”

Student journalist makes waves: Plagiarism with a purpose

A local high school newspaper included a plagiarized editorial in its latest issue – intentionally. Student writer Harmony Soto, after first contacting Boise Weekly writer George Prentice for permission, published his piece as her own – then acknowledged it in a biting editorial note, reports Melissa Davlin of Idaho Reports. “You may find parts of this article similar to previous articles written by George Prentice for the Boise Weekly,” Soto wrote. “We could apologize and say this is a mistake on part of the Borah Senator Staff, but if our new state superintendent was able to get away with it, is it even worth it?”

The student was commenting on a plagiarism scandal that arose during state schools Superintendent-elect Sherri Ybarra’s campaign, in which Ybarra acknowledged that campaign staffers copied some material on her campaign website from the campaign website of her Democratic opponent, Jana Jones. Prentice told Davlin, “I’m not certain how I feel about having my work plagiarized. On the other hand, I’m fascinated that it’s part of a bigger conversation about quite a bit of aggregating and borrowing and just flat-out stealing that is going on, that I can’t remember any time in my lifetime as much as I see now. If it is part of the bigger conversation, that’s not a bad conversation to have.”

Davlin’s full report is online here at her blog, “Idaho Reports in Blog Form.”

Brundage to open Friday for the ski season

Brundage Mountain has announced it will open Friday for the ski season, with three lifts, the BlueBird Quad, Lakeview Lift and Easy Street, operating from 9:30 to 4:30 and seven-day operations planned. Early-season conditions remain on the lower half of the mountain, according to spokeswoman April Whitney, due to recent warm temperatures, so the Bear Chair and the lower portions of some runs won't be open, but conditions are expected to be excellent on the Lakeview side; Brundage has gotten 6 inches of new snow since Saturday, and has a 10-inch base but 36 inches at the summit. “Terrain for beginners will, unfortunately, be limited,” Whitney said. “We have some snow in the forecast and will open more terrain as soon as it's safe and feasible to do so.” Lift tickets will be discounted to $48 for adults; there's more info here. Meanwhile, Bogus Basin, which is reporting a 13” base, is hoping to open for the holiday break by this weekend but has made no announcement; there's a chance of snow in the forecast from tonight through the weekend.

Otter: Supreme Court should hear Idaho’s input before deciding on gay marriage

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter believes the state’s arguments against gay marriage are so compelling and comprehensive that the U.S. Supreme Court should wait until it gets Idaho’s case before deciding on the issue. In arguments filed with the nation’s highest court, lawyers for Otter said waiting for Idaho’s case would help Supreme Court justices resolve “the marriage-litigation wave in all respects.”

Attorneys Gene Schaerr and Tom Perry filed those arguments in a friend-of-the-court brief for a petition to have the Supreme Court hear a same-sex marriage case out of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; you can read Otter’s 31-page brief here.

Otter lists several reasons why he thinks Idaho’s case is the “best vehicle” for the whole same-sex marriage issue to be decided. Among them: Idaho’s case includes both the question of in-state marriages and recognition of out-of-state marriages; it would test the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ application of a heightened standard of scrutiny for discrimination based on sexual orientation; it brings up religious liberty issues; and Idaho officials, unlike those in many states, have mounted a vigorous defense of their ban on gay marriage.

The legal brief cites “the enormous societal risks accompanying a genderless-marriage regime,” and says, “Common sense and a wealth of social-science data teach that children do best emotionally, socially, intellectually and economically when reared in an intact home by both biological parents.” “Of all the pending court of appeals cases,” the lawyers write, Idaho’s “is the only one in which public officials presented a robust ‘institutional’ defense of the man-woman definition of marriage.”

Deborah Ferguson, attorney for the four Idaho couples who successfully sued to overturn Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage, said she’d oppose any petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up Idaho’s case, “as the 9th Circuit correctly decided the marriage equality issue.” Idaho’s constitutional ban on gay marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships was overturned last May in federal court; the state appealed to the 9th Circuit but lost there, too. Idaho has a request pending for reconsideration from the 9th Circuit, but Otter’s brief says if it’s not granted within days, he will file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 5. Same-sex marriage became legal in Idaho on Oct. 15. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Lawmakers charged with overseeing IEN huddle with lawyers, take no action

The group of lawmakers charged with overseeing the troubled Idaho Education Network met today, but took no action, just meeting with lawyers behind closed doors, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News; his full report is online here. The group, known as IPRAC, for IEN Program Resource Advisory Council, was huddled with its lawyers for just over an hour, Richert reports. In November, District Judge Patrick Owen voided the multimillion-dollar contract for the network, ruling it was issued illegally to Qwest, now Century Link, and Education Networks of America. The state has requested the judge to reconsider.

Idaho exchange enrolls nearly 75,000 during first month of open enrollment

Your Health Idaho, Idaho’s health insurance exchange, reported today that it processed 74,689 enrollments in the first month of this year’s open enrollment period, including both new applicants and people renewing their coverage from last year. “There is a huge demand for health insurance in our state,” said the exchange’s executive director, Pat Kelly. “We are pleased so many Idahoans have already found a health insurance plan that fits their needs. However, we still have a lot of work to do before open enrollment ends and many more Idahoans to help.” The figures are for enrollments from Nov. 15 to Dec. 14.

Kelly told exchange board members Tuesday that the number fell somewhere mid-range of the exchange's projections, the AP reported. Last year, about 76,000 Idahoans enrolled in health insurance through the exchange. This year’s open enrollment period runs through Feb. 15, 2015.

Error causes over-billing on North Idaho school district’s tax levy

Wallace School District residents got a surprise in their property tax bills last month – a school bond payment that should have cost the average homeowner about $61 this year instead came out at $183. It was a mistake – the Idaho district had refinanced the 30-year bond that a decade ago built Wallace Junior-Senior High School, where 244 students now attend the 7th through 12th grade. That move two years ago was designed to save the local taxpayers money, not cost them more; all told, Superintendent Bob Ranells estimates it’ll save taxpayers $100,000 and also shorten the repayment period.

But as the district transitioned from the old loan to the new one, an error occurred, and the amount the district certified to the county for tax bills for 2014 included both the new payment and the old one, tripling the amount that taxpayers were billed for the year. The actual bond payment that’s due for the year is $187,494; the amount the district certified to the county was $559,610. For the owner of a $150,000 house with a homeowner’s exemption, that’s the difference between $61.39 for the year and $183.22, according to Shoshone County Deputy Auditor Linda Daugherty.

Asked if she’s been hearing a lot about the overbilling, Daugherty said, “Oh, yes.” Under state law, Shoshone County commissioners are the ones who will decide what to do: Re-calculate, re-bill and issue refunds; or do nothing, letting this year’s overpayments hold over to cover future years’ bond payments. Few are backing that option; Ranells said he’s recommending rebilling, even with an estimated $4,000 cost. The county has set a public hearing on the issue for tomorrow; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho man convicted of killing grizzly bear

An Idaho man has been sentenced to 2 years' probation after Idaho Fish and Game officials said he illegally killed a grizzly bear, the AP reports. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced the conviction on Monday, saying it was the first time the state has successfully prosecuted such a case since grizzly bears were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Normally the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handles those types of cases. Idaho Fish and Game says 23-year-old Kenneth Tyler Sommer, of Newdale, Idaho, was hunting for black bears in eastern Idaho when the grizzly was shot. Sommer told conservation officers he shot the grizzly after it charged him and his wife, but Idaho Fish and Game investigators said they found no evidence that the bear had ever charged.

Idaho distributors threaten 10 Barrel’s brewpub license for Boise

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho beer distributors are taking issue with a Boise brewpub now that the business has been purchased by Anheuser-Busch. The Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/1GLEvpb) reports the beer outlets contend that 10 Barrel brewpub is now too big to operate as a small brewery under Idaho state law. Idaho has a three-tiered system that requires alcohol producers, distributors and retail sellers to operate independently of each other. The law is designed to prevent large producers from controlling the distribution chain and squeezing out competitors. Members of the Idaho Beer and Wine Distributors Association say the Anheuser-Busch purchase means 10 Barrel now occupies two tiers. Currently, the Idaho State Police's Alcohol Beverage Control unit only counts beer produced in Idaho. Lt. Russ Wheatley says the state will review the complaint. 10 Barrel brewery produces about 42,000 barrels sold in Oregon, Idaho and Washington state.

Idaho Statesman reporter Zach Kyle's full report is online here.

Otter checks to make sure Lands contract extension won’t be with any campaign donors

There was an odd moment late in today’s Land Board meeting, when the board had gone through an array of recommendations related to a consultant’s report on how to better manage the state endowment’s land assets; click below for the department's full announcement of those management changes. The recommendations, which include prudently divesting from investments in commercial property, call for a number of steps to bring more professional management to the endowment’s land investment portfolio, including hiring some new staff at the state Department of Lands and extending a consulting agreement with Callan Associates, the consulting firm that did the report, for the next four years at $145,000 a year.

Gov. Butch Otter interrupted with this question: “Can you tell me if Callan Associates and any of its principals donated to any member of this board’s campaign?” Janet Becker-Wold, who was on the phone for the meeting and was the lead presenter of the consultant’s report, responded, “I didn’t. Sally didn’t.” That referred to her co-author, Sally Haskins.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who is retiring, said, “I know they didn’t give to my campaign, I’ll tell ya that.”

Otter asked Attorney General Lawrence Wasden if anyone who did receive such a donation would need to abstain from a vote on extending the consulting agreement. Wasden said not necessarily. “The procedure would be, give notice to the board of the potential conflict,” he said. “I’m not aware of any of ‘em that have donated to my campaign – I’m just not that popular.”

State schools Supt. Tom Luna said, “If there’s any question in anyone’s mind, then although it’s not required, there’s nothing preventing us from doing an RFP process. It takes longer, but if there’s any question, that would be a process that I think would be more than fair.”

Otter responded, “I apologize for not being able to tell you if a donation was made to my individual campaign. I don’t want to delay the process here, but at the same token, I think it should be of concern to each of us.”

Ysursa noted that the state already issued a Request for Proposals for the Callan consulting contract. Tongue in cheek, he said, “And I believe there was a plethora of candidates who submitted their proposals – we had one.”

At the board’s request, Betsie Kimbrough, election worker in the Idaho Secretary of State’s office, checked the campaign finance donation records. “I don’t find them contributing to anybody,” she reported. “I searched the whole database for every candidate.” Callan Associates is based in San Francisco, was formed as an employee-owned investment consulting firm in 1973, and now also has offices in Chicago, Denver, Atlanta and New Jersey. Ron Peyton of San Francisco is its chairman and CEO.

Three-year cabin site auction plan for 180 lots wins Land Board approval

Plans for additional auctions of state endowment-owned cottage sites on Priest and Payette lakes won approval from the state Land Board today, calling for 60 lots a year to be auctioned for the next three years. A random drawing, conducted by the Idaho Lottery, was made from among all those leasing lots who want their lots to go into the auction, and priority order numbers were assigned to each lot, letting them know in which order each would come up for auction. At auction, the current lessees can bid on the land under their cabins, as can others; the vast majority thus far have sold for the appraised value, which is the starting bid, to the current lessee. So far, Idaho has auctioned off 31 cottage sites at Payette Lake and 59 at Priest Lake.

There were actually 278 lake lot lessees interested in auctions and issued numbers, 72 percent of the 385 total state lots at the two lakes. If a lot comes up for auction and the lessee isn’t ready to proceed, the next number on the list moves up, if that one is ready. The proceeds from the auctions go largely to the permanent endowment fund for schools.

Ysursa: ‘Honor and privilege to serve’

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa says he’s attended more than 400 state Land Board meetings in the past 40 years; he’s retiring at the end of his current term and participated in his final one today. He lauded the board for sticking to its constitutional mission: “That is the No. 1 goal of the Land Board is to maximize income for the long term for our beneficiaries under Article 9, Section 8 of the Constitution,” Ysursa said. The largest of those beneficiaries is Idaho’s K-12 public schools.

“I think we should never forget that the most valuable asset in the state of Idaho are its people, those are the ones we work for,” Ysursa said. “There’s also ones we work with, so I want to thank the Department of Lands staff over the years for the good work that they’ve done. Director (Tom) Schultz and others have really focused in on that mandate, again, it’s all about getting money for the beneficiaries. It’s been my honor and privilege to serve, and I appreciate it.”

Schultz presented both outgoing Land Board members – Ysursa and state schools Supt. Tom Luna – with paintings of Priest Lake, in memory of the board’s long dealings with cottage sites on the lake.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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