A year largely out of the limelight and a more familiar supporting cast have significantly improved Idaho Schools Superintendent Anne Fox’s standing with top local school administrators.
But while the number expressing confidence in Fox has more than doubled in the past year, a clear majority of superintendents representing the state’s 112 school districts still doubts her ability to manage the Department of Education.
And even more say they would not like to see her run for re-election.
“Yes, things have settled down. But there’s not leadership there. There’s not moving ahead and fighting for kids,” Moscow Superintendent Jack Hill said.
The Associated Press interviewed 100 of the superintendents by telephone and found that 60 have no confidence in Fox’s management. Thirty-three are confident, six are undecided and one refused to respond. The 12 others could not be reached or declined to return calls.
A similar survey a year ago, involving 105 superintendents, found that 74 had no confidence in Fox and 16 others were concerned but withholding judgment. Fox had the confidence of only 14 of the men and women hired by locally elected trustees to manage the schools their own children attend.
Eighteen of those who had no confidence in Fox last year now give her at least a qualified endorsement.
“It’s improving. I have questions about some areas, but she and those around her are working very hard in trying to meet our needs,” Mackay Superintendent Doran Parkins said.
Fox responded to the survey results with a written statement.
“I am delighted to see more support from the superintendents, but my main role is not to worry about whether or not they like me - this is not a popularity contest,” the statement said. “Rather, I am here to do what the public elected me to do.”
Indeed, Fox rode a back-to-basics message and the Republican sweep of 1994 to a nearly 56,000-vote victory while openly running against the education establishment. She has taken fewer rhetorical swipes in the past year at groups like the Idaho Education Association - which embraced her retired predecessor, fellow Republican Jerry Evans.
But Fox continues to pursue a conservative agenda at odds with many public school officials.
Even among the 33 superintendents now confident in Fox, only 10 definitely said she should run for a second term in 1998. Overall, 68 said one term was enough, and 21 were undecided about a Fox re-election bid.
“I don’t think it matters,” Valley School District Superintendent Arlyn Bodily said. “The Republican is going to win and the Democrat is going to lose.”
It was turmoil created by controversial personnel decisions in the early days of her administration that bothered superintendents most a year ago. Especially troubling was Fox’s firing of the department’s leading expert on distribution of state aid to schools.
Since then, Fox has eased some fears by promoting respected professionals within the department. Darrell Loosle was elevated from associate superintendent for state-federal instructional services to chief deputy superintendent; Jerry Pelton from bureau chief for instruction to Loosle’s former job, and Jim Smith from supervisor of teacher certification to deputy superintendent for finance and administration.
Changes like those, and the realization that it ultimately would diminish local control, seemed to affect the attitude toward increased control over the department by the State Board of Education. Fifty-seven supported that idea; 42 opposed it a year ago. Now, only 19 support it and 77 oppose it.
“I think the people that she has been able to bring on board in the past four to five months have enhanced her ability to do that job by about threefold,” American Falls Superintendent Ron Bolinger said.
“We’ve actually had a pretty smooth year after the dust settled,” New Plymouth Superintendent Ryan Kerby agreed.
Fox also has indicated her support for pumping state tax money into school construction. She proposed increasing the sales tax as much as 1 cent to funnel cash to local projects, although the idea was never seriously considered by legislators and Fox did little to push it.
“She’s not a leader. She’s not a public educator. In fact, looking at her record she has not been a supporter of public education,” said Moscow’s Hill. “In terms of the dollars, she has just knifed us in the back.”
Few superintendents, however, are willing to speak openly about Fox. One who expressed no confidence in her a year ago said flatly that he would not participate in this year’s survey.
“My perception is that I got shafted last year so I’m just not going to play anymore,” Idaho Falls Superintendent Chris Mattocks said.
Hill said he understands superintendents’ reluctance to publicly criticize Fox.
“Maybe there’s nothing she can do because we are hired by our boards, but the perceived fear is maybe she’ll go after your job by putting pressure on you in some way,” he said. “I don’t want to jeopardize the Moscow School District again by what I say or do, but as superintendents we have to be spokespersons for public education.”
Nick Hallett, former Meridian School District superintendent and now a University of Idaho associate professor of teacher education and education administration, said a number of factors have contributed to Fox’s problems.
Following the popular Evans, her refusal to solicit support from major public education interests, compounded by a tightening state budget after several years of generous allotments, made it unlikely Fox would please superintendents anyway.
Some also are concerned about her affinity for home-school advocates and others with philosophies that many public educators consider anathema.
“Dr. Fox is under the gun, if you will, in terms of delivering for public education,” Hallett said. “If you looked at the issues I think you’d find that she’s much closer to their position than is commonly perceived. What she needs is something tangible and concrete that really demonstrates that she has the same goals they have.”
But Fox differs with many superintendents on how to achieve those goals, and she does not hesitate to remind them where the real authority lies.
“Educators need to realize they work for the taxpayers and somewhere along the line that philosophical view has been lost,” she said in her statement, “and I am here to bring it back.”