Idaho Superintendent Ybarra makes her budget pitch, discusses pandemic learning loss

·6 min read
Sarah A. Miller/smiller@idahostatesman.com

This story originally published Jan. 17 in Idaho Education News.

Idaho’s schools will be trying to recover from pandemic-related learning loss for years, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said Monday, and the early data is mixed.

“The impacts of the pandemic were less severe than we thought they might be, but we did see some declines in some of our statewide indicators of student achievement,” Ybarra told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, as she presented her 2022-23 budget request.

As the Legislature began the second week of its 2022 session, JFAC turned its attention to Ybarra’s Monday morning presentation by looking at the biggest budget of them all. K-12 receives half of the state’s general fund — collections from sales, income and corporate taxes.

The state of education

Before delving into the dollars — and her plan to spend more than $2.2 billion of state tax money on K-12 — Ybarra recapped the state of education, nearly two years into the pandemic.

Remote learning was a challenge for parents and kids, especially in the early grades. Employees — the ones who have stayed in schools — remain “overwhelmed,” Ybarra said. Students are still reeling from long-term school closures dating back to the spring of 2020.

“And we should never do that again,” said Ybarra, noting that most Idaho schools are now open, despite staff shortages triggered by a record-setting surge in coronavirus cases.

The test scores (which appear on pages 7 through 10 of Ybarra’s budget presentation) quantify the challenges facing students and teachers.

Early reading scores showed some signs of improvement this year, but remain below pre-pandemic scores. Standardized test scores decreased slightly in English language arts, and math scores remained troublingly low. Scores on the SAT, a college entrance exam, also came in below pre-pandemic levels.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, challenged Ybarra on the test scores. He said the test scores were lackluster even before the pandemic, and have languished despite an increased K-12 budget that eclipsed the $2 billion mark for the first time.

“I’m just heartsick at seeing these performance indicators,” Nate said.

Ybarra defended the state’s performance, saying the state is focused on making strategic education investments. “We are getting results,” she said.

Budget highlights — and budget questions

Ybarra’s budget request augments some familiar programs.

Noting the state still has “a lot of work to do” on literacy, Ybarra said her top priority is a $39.3 million optional, all-day kindergarten program. She wants an additional $3.3 million to expand the advanced opportunities program, which covers dual-credit courses. Her biggest requested increase, some $67.7 million, goes into salaries and benefits for teachers, administrators and classified staff.

“It’s all about the people right now,” Ybarra said Monday.

K-12 isn’t just the largest piece of the state budget — it is usually one of the most closely scrutinized of all state budgets. And so it was Monday, as Ybarra spent close to two hours presenting her budget request and fielding questions from JFAC, the Legislature’s powerful House-Senate budget writing committee.

Some of Monday’s questions hint at the budget debates that could unfold in the weeks to come:

All-day kindergarten. Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, asked Ybarra why she proposed a $39.3 million plan that would serve only at-risk readers. Ybarra, a State Board of Education member, voted for a more extensive State Board proposal last year.

Ybarra said she would certainly support a larger kindergarten plan; Gov. Brad Little has proposed a $46.7 million plan. But Ybarra considered her plan to help at-risk readers a starting point. “I wanted to be conservatively responsible going forward.”

Classified salaries. Many school districts are scrambling to fill classified jobs — anything from IT professionals and classroom paraprofessionals to bus drivers and cafeteria staff. One problem is pay, Ybarra said: In North Idaho’s Lakeland School District, some classified jobs pay $13.44 per hour, while the nearby Taco Bell pays $14 per hour.

Ybarra has proposed a 6.9% increase for classified salaries, but Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, questioned whether that would do enough. He suggested a 10% raise, mirroring Little’s request for teacher pay raises.

(Click here for more details about how Ybarra’s budget request compares to Little’s recommendations.)

Administrative dollars, and job openings

Ybarra and Little aligned closely in their requests for Ybarra’s State Department of Education, the administrative arm of Idaho education policy.

Neither is seeking increases to the department’s annual base of state funding — a $26,000 payout for an existing science grant program is the sole exception — though both hope the Legislature will grant the SDE authority to spend federal money earmarked for administrative costs after lawmakers waited to do so last session.

  • Ybarra and Little both requested a base of about $40 million for the coming fiscal year, identical to the amount last year’s Legislature approved for the 2022 fiscal year.

  • Each office is also seeking about $12.6 million for “program maintenance” — costs that would mostly be covered by one-time federal money already allotted to Idaho to help SDE oversee school spending of federal coronavirus relief funding for public and private schools.

The SDE’s new budget would help fund those of its 123 employees who aren’t paid by the feds, a one-employee decrease from last year. Ybarra hopes approval of the budget would aid in filling nine open SDE staff positions in a tight labor market.

“If funded, it will help both recruiting and retaining,” she said.

Process, politics and prosperity

Ybarra’s presentation kicked off close to five weeks of budget hearings in JFAC. After JFAC hears from agencies and department heads — such as Ybarra, who heads the State Department of Education in her elected post — JFAC will start writing budget bills on Feb. 18. Those bills must pass both houses before they go to Little for his consideration.

JFAC’s job figures to be complicated this year, because of politics and prosperity.

It’s an election year for every legislator and every statewide official — including Ybarra, a Republican, who has not announced whether she will seek a third term for office.

One political reaction came quickly. Republican state superintendent’s candidate Debbie Critchfield panned the incumbent’s proposal. “After another year of unprecedented challenges and disruptions with in-person instruction and learning loss, it was disappointing to see so many missed opportunities in Ybarra’s budget request,” Critchfield said in a statement. “In a budget cycle, with record state surpluses, we might have expected the state superintendent to request support for all kindergarteners, rather than a limited and unclear approach to a real need.”

In an email to Idaho Education News, GOP state superintendent’s candidate Branden Durst was also critical. “Superintendent Ybarra doubled-down on the failed strategy of throwing more money into the system and hoping that this time things improve. As state superintendent, I’ll focus on putting money in the hands of parents so they can decide where their child’s education dollars are spent. It’s time for a new direction in Idaho education.”

JFAC also faces an unusual opportunity: a record-shattering state budget surplus of $1.9 billion. And before she discussed her budget details, Ybarra began Monday’s presentation with a general request. While she acknowledged the competing, and viable demands on the surplus, Ybarra said education investments will keep Idaho’s economy the “envy” of the nation.

“Education has been and continues to be a top priority.”