State School Superintendent Sherri Ybarra has said many times that she is an educator, not a politician. So, it’s not surprising that she doesn’t pay much attention to political norms, even after almost four years in office.
If she were to write a “How To” book, the chapter topics would go something like this: How to win a Republican primary election without a lot of campaigning; How to defeat an opponent who had experience working with the state Department of Education (Jana Jones); and How to be the only Republican not to have a convincing victory on election night.
All those things happened before she became Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction in 2015.
Since winning the office, she could write about how to survive the culture shock of suddenly being in charge of a state agency; how to give a school-budget presentation in less than 30 minutes; and how to stay positive while political sages declare her to be unfit for the office.
Ybarra has shown otherwise. She compensated for her lack of state-agency experience by hiring bright people who have helped make the agency run smoothly. Since her first go-round with the budget committee, she has learned that legislators expect more than sound-bites in school presentations.
Working in the political environment was the least of her culture shocks. “As a former vice principal of a junior high school, I figured that if I could handle 250 teenage boys by myself, then I could handle a few legislators,” Ybarra told me. “I’ll tell you that experience matters. I’m better at this job than four years ago. We have gotten results under my leadership. Idaho students deserve consistency and stability, and that’s what they will get.”
That is, if she wins re-election. Her Democratic opponent, Cindy Wilson, is blasting the superintendent on a variety of fronts – including rolling out a $20 million school safety plan without consulting the Office of School Safety and other key players, and missing a high number of state Board of Education meetings.
Ybarra shrugs off those criticisms, while touting her leadership skills.
On school safety, Ybarra says she gave early notice that her safety plan was in the works, and interested parties can still offer input. The critics seem to be more interested in following a political process than making schools safer, she says.
“As a mother myself, I don’t want to hear anything about processes. Good leaders do exactly what I did,” Ybarra said. “If I’m out in the yard gardening, and my two-year-old is running in the middle of the street, am I going to look at my neighbor and my husband and ask if it’s OK for me to save my child’s life? Or, am I going to take immediate action and rescue my kid from the road? What’s important is the end result, and not the process – or creating boxes to check off.”
Ybarra acknowledges that she misses some meetings, but superintendents have a full schedule. But she does send staff representatives to monitor meetings she cannot attend.
The criticism from her opponent, she says, reflects “a real lack of experience and knowledge of being a leader, running an organization as large as this one and being a constitutional officer. Good leaders have to prioritize.”
Ybarra says voters should grade her on accomplishments – such as reading skills and graduation rates going up. In addition, more students are earning college credits while in high school while teacher salaries are rising. She says there’s more to come, especially if Republican Lt. Gov. Brad Little wins the gubernatorial race. The two agree on the overall direction of education, and both are seeking a more aggressive push for early childhood education.
“The research is really clear that with every dollar we spend in early educational opportunities, there is an $18 return on the investment,” Ybarra says. But she adds that kindergarten at a certain age should not be mandated. Parents need to decide when their children are ready.
She says the Legislature’s unanimous approval of the school budget is evidence that “the state is united” on the general direction of education.
“A lot of great things are going on with our kids.”
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org