BOISE – Idaho’s troubled state Board of Education should limit itself to policy-setting and not try to run programs, the board’s interim director told state lawmakers Friday.
“To the extent that we’re in that business, we ought to take a look at getting out of that business,” Mike Rush told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
The state board office had a budget crisis over the past year, driven by cost overruns in its student testing program. As a result, it’s now holding all its top staff positions vacant to save money, including director, chief fiscal officer and chief academic officer, and having employees with other full-time jobs fill in. Rush said he hopes to soon fill the fiscal officer job, which has been vacant since July 1.
Rush, who also is the state’s director of professional-technical education, made a distinction, however, for what he called the “audit function” – making sure that the policies the board sets are adequately carried out. He said the board’s operation of testing programs for Idaho schoolchildren is appropriate because it’s part of that auditing function.
Some lawmakers disagree. House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, is drafting legislation to remove the testing program from the board’s office and send it back to the state Department of Education, which oversees the state’s school system.
Rush’s comments got strong positive reactions from legislators.
“I hope the board will consider those comments, because I think it makes sense,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, who served on the board for five years. “Just like any board, their chief purpose is policy-setting, and when they try to get too much into the operational side, it just creates inefficiencies.”
The board – seven appointees plus the elected state superintendent of schools – is charged with overseeing all public education in Idaho, from kindergarten to doctoral programs at universities. It supervises additional functions such as the state library and historical society, public broadcasting and vocational rehabilitation, and also serves as the board of regents for each of Idaho’s public universities.
The state board office had only 10 employees a decade ago, before an eight-year-long political turf war between the board, appointed by a Republican governor, and the schools superintendent, who then was Democrat Marilyn Howard. During that time, the board’s office staff ballooned to 27, and the board took on an array of new duties related to public schools, with the testing program the largest among them.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I don’t think it was ever quite the intent for the state board to do what it has taken on in recent years.”
Rush dismissed the longstanding debate over whether one board can effectively oversee both K-12 public schools and higher education. The two, he said, are “critically interdependent,” adding, “What we do at the higher education level affects what we do at the kindergarten level.”
Milford Terrell, president of the board, said he agreed with Rush, though he said the board also needs to take an active role in oversight after it sets the policies. “I feel very comfortable that we can handle this and move forward,” Terrell said.
Hammond said his impression as a former board member is that “it can be overwhelming. It depends on how well staffed you are, both in quantity and quality. … But as long as you’re focused on policy, and you’re not doing the operational stuff, it can work out.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said she attended an all-day state board meeting in Twin Falls over the summer. “It was a disquieting experience, because of the tremendous responsibility we’re asking of a volunteer board, all of whom as individuals are very professional and highly qualified,” she said. “It seems like they might be getting a little bit bogged down on some mundane things.”