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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Luna accepts reform rejection

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna talks with reporters in November 2012, in his first public comments since his school reform laws were rejected by voters. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – A subdued Tom Luna, Idaho state superintendent of schools, pledged Monday to work with all sides to bring back only the pieces of his voter-rejected “Students Come First” reforms on which broad agreement can be achieved.

“I think it’s critical that we work together,” Luna said in his first public comments since last Tuesday’s election. Asked about the role of the Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers union, Luna said, “We’ll sit down and meet with them.”

Asked what he regrets, Luna said, “I regret that I ever used the phrase ‘union thuggery.’ ” He also said he regretted that the laws that went to the voters in three referendum measures were so complex and far-reaching, and promised simpler, less-comprehensive proposals in the future.

Mike Lanza, chairman of the campaign that successfully overturned the laws, reacted with suspicion to Luna’s comments. “His entire track record is not one of collaboration, and we believe his credibility is what it is because of that,” Lanza said, noting that as the referendum campaign was gathering signatures, Luna and lawmakers added “clearly unnecessary” emergency clauses to the controversial laws. “He’s not the person to lead this time. He should endorse a process that is run from outside of his department.”

Lanza said, “I would urge the Legislature and Superintendent Luna to refrain from trying to pass anything quickly this year, because if they do, I think they will again raise the ire of the public.” He said Idaho must “depoliticize this process and have it driven from the ground up. I’m talking about parents, teachers, administrators, members of school boards, business leaders, the very coalition of people that we’ve already begun to build. We believe that that’s the way to really give credibility to this process and get buy-in from the public, not by having it driven by the superintendent whose plan has been discredited by the voters.”

Luna said he accepts the voters’ verdict on his reform plan. “The same people that voted down those laws elected me to this position twice,” he said. “I have full confidence in Idahoans in educating themselves and making a decision based on the information gathered. … They had specific issues with specific parts of the law.”

He offered a couple of examples of pieces of the sweeping laws that he thought all sides might support: funding for high school seniors who have completed graduation requirements to take dual-credit college courses; funding for more math and science teachers; and “some sort of pay for performance.” But he said, overall, he doesn’t know what parts of the reform plan will win support from all sides. “We’ll hear from the stakeholders and we’ll identify what we all agree on,” Luna said. “I think the governor will continue to play a lead role.”

Luna said he stayed out of the public eye in the days following the election because he was exhausted and emotionally drained. “I just took a couple of days, just spent time with my grandkids and my family,” he said. “I was just mentally and physically done.”

He said his department will be eliminating several positions it added to carry out the reforms.

Luna also released an Idaho attorney general’s opinion saying that $38.8 million in merit-pay bonuses that Idaho teachers earned last year under the now-repealed laws can be paid as scheduled; Luna had raised questions over whether the laws’ repeal would cancel those payments. He called the legal opinion “very good news.”