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Candidates for Idaho’s top education job spar in debate

BOISE – Idaho’s current state superintendent of schools – the first noneducator to hold the position – loomed large in the debate Tuesday night between the two educators vying to succeed him.

“If you liked Tom Luna, you’re going to love Sherri Ybarra,” Democratic candidate Jana Jones said of her GOP opponent. “We can’t afford to have another four years of a superintendent who is well-intended but ill-prepared.”

Ybarra also made some comments critical of Luna, a Republican who proposed a controversial set of school reform laws that voters rejected in 2012.

“Right now, I think that teachers are feeling very disrespected,” Ybarra said, “and I think they feel that the public does not support them and their leader does not support them. It’s important to remember that being on the front lines, I do support them.”

But she also said she’d “take the opportunity that our current leader has given me to transition in and spend two months closely studying” the school budget and the job.

Jones seized on Ybarra’s reference to being trained on the job by Luna.

“She has said that she will carry on and move forward Tom Luna’s recommended budget, as well as move into the office right next door to him right after the election so he could train her on how to do the job.”

Ybarra said although state spending for schools is “probably” spread “dangerously thin,” that doesn’t mean she necessarily supports increasing money for schools.

“I am very aware of that state budget, and I have been studying it very closely, and I am going to be the state superintendent who does not ask for more until she understands that every single dollar has been stretched to the max.”

Jones, who was chief deputy state superintendent under former state Superintendent Marilyn Howard, said she already fully understands the budget.

“We don’t have time to wait a year for somebody to study and figure out where things are going before those decisions are made. We need a superintendent that can get in there right now and go right to work,” Jones said. The two sparred over the backing of a legislative committee.

Ybarra said she has the support of the majority of legislators and the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee,

But Jones was skeptical that Ybarra has been endorsed by the full committee.

“To say that she has the support of JFAC, to me it’s inappropriate,” Jones said.

Ybarra responded by calling Jones “misinformed.”

“She’s been gone so long that she doesn’t know who JFAC is, but they are listed on my website and they most certainly do support me.”

Ybarra’s campaign website was down on Tuesday. While she has in the past listed some lawmakers among her supporters there, JFAC has 20 members from both parties. Just two have been listed as supporters on Ybarra’s site.

“I do know what JFAC is, I’ve actually testified in front of JFAC several times,” Jones told Ybarra, “and not every member of JFAC is on your website.”

Ybarra also repeated her pitch – first offered in an earlier televised debate – that by serving as state superintendent, she can repay Idaho for her lapses in not having voted in a single general election since she moved to the state in 1996.

“That’s a civic duty,” Ybarra said, “and if elected, this will be a civic duty that I will repay Idaho through for my lack of having a consistent voting history. And I would be honored to do that.”

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