February 29, 2008 in Idaho

Lawmakers grill education board

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – State senators pounded Idaho state Board of Education members with tough, detailed questions for more than two hours Thursday on how the board botched a testing contract, ran up a $1.4 million deficit and nearly lost a major federal grant.

Board Vice President Paul Agidius, of Moscow, said, “I think it was a good airing of what happened. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of questions that we just don’t know who did what, because it wasn’t at our level.”

Agidius, who stood in as acting board president because Milford Terrell is out of the country, said, “I hope that it came across that we are taking steps … to ensure that the process works properly in the future, and errors like this can’t happen.”

Former board presidents Blake Hall and Laird Stone, both attorneys, took most of the questions from the Senate Education Committee, and Hall had some heated exchanges with senators.

Sen. Tom Gannon, R-Buhl, expressed concern over “something so basic as to be spending money that is beyond what has been appropriated by the Legislature – that seems like pretty basic-level government practices.”

Hall disputed that. “I hope there isn’t a misconception that the state board spent money that was not appropriated,” he said. “There was no embezzling, there was no over-expenditure of funds, there was no criminal activity.” Instead, he said, “What occurred is that a staff member violated board policy.”

The department staff committed the board to a testing contract under the impression that supplemental funding was forthcoming from the Legislature, Hall said. Then, when it wasn’t, “They were caught. … That was when a staff member brought it to the attention of the board.”

The board “acted properly,” he said, modifying the contract to cut costs and cutting expenses in the board office, ensuring that the board didn’t overspend its budget.

Because of the shortfall, the contract for the Idaho Standards Achievement Test was modified in September to eliminate second-grade testing, and in December to eliminate ninth-grade testing, even though the test counts as a high-stakes graduation requirement for 10th-graders. Idaho students previously had been taking the ISAT test twice a year in second through 10th grades.

The board also has kept vacant all four of its top staff positions – from executive director to chief financial officer – to save money. Other full-time employees are filling in for the missing officials.

Hall told the senators there is nothing wrong with the board’s structure or workload. “I believe it was a staffing issue, not a structural issue,” he said.

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, responded, “The most disheartening part of this whole issue is that the board has been all too willing to push the responsibility onto staff. … There were members of the board who had responsibility and who had full knowledge of what was going on, and did nothing to stop it. … Just to say it’s a staffer’s fault – I think that’s disingenuous.”

After the hearing, Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said, “The board has some serious systemic problems, and you couple that with a culture of arrogance – that merits very close watching by this Legislature and the executive.”

Six of the eight board members, including state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, attended the hearing.

Agidius said he hoped the hearing will help clear the air. “We are concerned that events and publicity of the last six months have distracted from the public confidence in the system,” he told the senators. “Mistakes were made. Those mistakes have been corrected.”

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