C+: A (Barely) Passing Grade at Idaho School Superintendent Forum 

Educators fail to ignite passion in superintendent debate

Jana Jones (left) and Sherri Ybarra (right) are vying to become the new Idaho Superintendent of Public Insturction. The post is being vacated by current Superintendent Tom Luna.

Patrick Sweeney

Jana Jones (left) and Sherri Ybarra (right) are vying to become the new Idaho Superintendent of Public Insturction. The post is being vacated by current Superintendent Tom Luna.

Jana Jones and Sherri Ybarra should have known better. They're both veteran educators--Jones with 40 years in the business, Ybarra has nearly 20--so they understand that adults are not much different from school kids, and it requires a top-notch teacher to motivate and engage someone after lunch. Fill your students (or audience) with starch and sugar and you better bring your A-game.

But Jones and Ybarra eked out only a passing grade in their tepid attempt to distinguish themselves from one another during a Sept. 26 City Club of Boise candidate forum. In what many had hoped would be a lively debate that relied on details rather than talking points, neither candidate strayed too far from slogans and candidate-speak.

Questions from moderator Jim Weatherby, who performed a yeoman's task of pitching fastballs, resulted in inside-the-park single base hits from Jones and Ybarra in what should have been a high-profile showcase of the two women wanting to shape Idaho's future.

"I ask for no signs of approval or disapproval," Weatherby said, cautioning the 250-plus audience from breaking into spontaneous applause. He needn't have worried. With very few exceptions, nothing approached clap-worthy approval.

"My name is Sherri Ybarra and my focus and my passion is education," said the Mountain Home Republican in a pitch that could have come from a campaigning high-school class president. "I will be a conservative leader."

Ybarra would re-employ the "conservative" moniker 60 seconds later, just in case anyone nodded off, which was a definite risk. She would say it two more times before the 60-minute forum lapsed.

"Our schools are in crisis," said Democrat Jones in her opening statement, teasing the audience with some red meat. But too often, Jones and Ybarra came across as tired--even whining a bit about having to participate in a number of similar forums, including one the night before in Canyon County.

It's not as if the audience wasn't hungry for details; written questions started coming up to the podium even before the forum began. When one attendee asked the candidates to describe the "biggest difference" between the two, Ybarra repeated that she would be "the conservative leader," while Jones ignored the question altogether, answering that "We need to remove the strings that are binding our local school boards."

Another solid question surfaced from the audience when someone asked about Idaho's failed experiment of shifting school funding from property tax to sales tax. Jones stated the obvious when she answered, "We lost a stable source of funding when we had that tax shift," and, "We can't depend on sales tax." While Ybarra dodged the question entirely, saying that it was a legislator's job, not the superintendent's, to drive tax policy.

"It's clearly up to the Legislature," she repeated.

The only fish-in-a-barrel opportunity proved to be more awkward than telling, when one audience member asked Ybarra about her failure to vote in the 2012 election, when the so-called "Luna Laws" package of education reforms came before Idaho voters.

"I accept full responsibility for that," said Ybarra. "I think there are a lot of us here who have missed an election. I'm not exempt from that."

Jones said she was more than "happy to say" that she had voted in every election to the best of her knowledge.

The forum ended with brief summations, in which Jones said, "We only get one chance to educate our kids and we owe it to our kids to get it right the first time," and Ybarra saying yet again, "I will be the candidate who will be conservative."

Right. Got it.

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