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Cindy Wilson challenging Sherri Ybarra in race for Idaho superintendent of schools

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 20, 2018

Incumbent Republican Idaho Superintendent of Schools Sherri Ybarra faces Democrat Cindy Wilson in the 2018 November election. (Betsy Z. Russell / Idaho Press)
Incumbent Republican Idaho Superintendent of Schools Sherri Ybarra faces Democrat Cindy Wilson in the 2018 November election. (Betsy Z. Russell / Idaho Press)
By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

Sherri Ybarra says if voters re-elect her for another four-year term as state superintendent of schools, they’ll be voting for stability.

“You know what’s coming, you know what your superintendent stands for,” she said. “We have a lot to be proud of.”

She pointed to improvements in test scores and high school graduation rates, increases in the school budget each year she’s been in office, and the state’s new career ladder teacher pay plan.

According to Idaho State Department of Education figures, Idaho’s high school graduation rate rose from 77.27 percent in 2014 to 79.67 percent in 2017. The number of students scoring as proficient in math rose from 39.3 percent in 2015 to 43.7 percent in 2018, and in English language arts, from 51.1 percent to 53.7 percent.

“We’ve stuck with our plan, we’ve seen great gains,” Ybarra said. “I’ve built some great relationships with movers and shakers in the state, and our kids need stability.”

Ybarra’s challenger, longtime teacher Cindy Wilson, counters, “Anything positive that has happened in education over the last four years was the implementation of the recommendations from the education improvement task force in 2013, on which I served. There is no new legislation that has been passed or been implemented positively in this state department. We’ve seen a vacuum of leadership.”

That task force, appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, brought together stakeholders on all sides after the state’s divisive fight over school reforms proposed by former state Superintendent Tom Luna and approved by the Legislature and governor, and then repealed by voters in historic referendum votes in 2012.

The 31-member task force, on which Wilson was one of five members representing Idaho teachers, laid out a five-year plan for teacher pay, technology improvements and more that drew support from all sides and led to far less controversy over Idaho schools each year since, including over annual budget increases. Idaho’s now in the fourth year of the five-year plan.

“We’re coming to the end of that five-year plan – what’s next?” Wilson asks. “We should be looking forward. Too often in government, we don’t have a vision of the future. We do things as a Band-Aid to get through to the next election, and that’s wrong.”

Wilson said, “I want to be an advocate for children. We need someone in that position who steps up, stands up, and is there for kids, and I’ve been doing that for 33 years.”

Ybarra said, “We’re not finished yet.”

The key, she said, is “stability – meaning we stick to our plan. … Of course, we’ve had to make tweaks along the way. It’s more about making strategic investments, and not about what year it’s supposed to end.” She added that the implementation of the five-year plan was “a little anemic with our technology and our professional development. Technology is the great equalizer. We need to make some investments.”

Wilson, a native of Preston in rural southeastern Idaho, holds a bachelor’s degree from Boise State University and has taught for 33 years in Idaho schools, retiring in June to campaign fulltime. She worked in districts all over Idaho, large and small, and won teaching awards including Meridian Teacher of the Year and Milken National Educator for Idaho. Three years ago, Gov. Butch Otter appointed her to the state Board of Correction, the three-member board that helps oversee Idaho’s prison system, an experience she says deeply affected her.

“What that has done for me is point out what happens when we don’t do a good job of educating children,” she said. “Seventy percent of the people incarcerated don’t have any kind of a high school diploma or GED.”

Wilson said she grew up in a conservative Republican family and was a member of the College Republicans, then studiously stayed nonpartisan for many years as a high school government teacher. She began identifying as a Democrat after the passage of the Luna Laws.

“I was so disappointed at how the legislative branch and the executive branch supported those mandates, despite what the education professionals said about them,” Wilson said. “I said: ‘I’m coming out and I’m taking a stand. These are wrong.’ ”

Otter chose Wilson as the only Democrat on the Board of Correction; the board is required by law to be bipartisan.

Wilson said she’s a listener. Throughout her campaign, she’s offered to meet with any person or group who’s interested and has brought her message many places, including conservative talk radio, education officials’ meetings and supporters’ living rooms.

“There’s one thing I’ve always taught my students,” she said, “Elections have consequences. You’re not just voting for a person that will sit in that office. You’re voting for the status quo, or you’re voting for a change in what’s been happening.”

Ybarra, a Republican, moved to Idaho in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in education from West Liberty University in West Virginia and began teaching third grade. She earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Idaho in 2007 and an educational specialist degree, also from the UI. After 11 years of teaching, she became a vice principal, then principal, then district curriculum director before winning her current post of state superintendent.

Ybarra’s first campaign was marred by embarrassing missteps. She admitted to plagiarizing her Democratic opponent’s website and acknowledged never having voted in an Idaho general election. She won narrowly, and disappointed lawmakers with her first budget presentation, which was far lighter on details than is typical. Since then, she’s pointedly stepped up her game, pitching her office as one that exists to serve local school districts, in contrast to predecessor Luna, who was more focused on reshaping Idaho education from the top down. She’s also had a fair amount of turnover among her staff, for which she’s tapped several officials from Mountain Home, where she still lives.

Ybarra said she will seek funding in January for a $20 million school safety plan, an additional boost to teacher pay beyond the current career ladder plans and a “teacher pipeline” initiative aimed at attracting new teachers to rural Idaho districts. She’s no longer proposing the rural schools network that she’s unsuccessfully pitched to lawmakers each of the last four years, without receiving funding for it.

Wilson’s not impressed with Ybarra’s school safety initiative, saying it merely duplicates some of the efforts already being pushed through the state Office of School Safety and Security, which state lawmakers created in 2016.

“I’ve been meeting with them regularly,” Wilson said. “I’ve learned so much. No. 1, they talk about prevention.”

Wilson said Ybarra’s school safety measure would be a waste of tax dollars.

“I never thought I would be the fiscal conservative in this race, but in this one I am,” Wilson said. “Why would you spend all of that money to duplicate what is already being done by another taxpayer-funded office?”

She deemed the proposal “ignorant and ill-planned and wasteful spending,” and compared it to a saying she heard when she volunteered for several weeks at an orphanage in Africa. “They say, ‘We love election time, because in election time the electricity works and the roads get fixed,’ ” Wilson said.

Wilson lists her priorities as improving student learning; retaining and recruiting great teachers; and investing in public preschool.

“I do know what works in a classroom,” she said.

Ybarra says, “I plan to maintain my ‘service first’ agenda with Idaho’s school districts.” On her campaign website, she said, “We bring strong collaboration, strong community support and a fiscally conservative way of doing business.”

She said of her opponent, “We’re on two ends of the political arena.”

“I don’t have that learning curve coming into office,” Ybarra said. “I’ve already gotten past that, and it’s a big job. … That’s what sets me apart from my opponent.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state Capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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