Karen Echeverria 

“Our ultimate goal is always what’s best for our students. How we get there … well, we may not always agree on those issues.”

When Karen Echeverria tees up on the first hole of Lakeview Golf Club in Meridian, she takes the long view.

"I have a big drive," she said. "Put me on the front tee."

Echeverria, 57, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, is keeping her eye on the proverbial ball of late--not a dimpled Titleist but the education budget which is being whacked around by the 2013 Idaho Legislature.

"I think our funding system is unsustainable. We can't keep doing the same thing, hoping it will be better or different," she said.

In the midst of a tight schedule where she's constantly shuttling between her 13th Street office and the State Capitol, Echeverria sat down with Boise Weekly to talk about spending, politics and her Basque heritage.

When did you change your name to Echeverria?

I was in my 40s. My mother's family came from Spain and I wanted to take her maiden name. I was born a Robison. My name changed to Gustafson when I was married for 20 years, and then I changed it to Echeverria. I wanted to celebrate that Basque heritage.

Are your professional roots in education?

Not really. I worked in various jobs for the state, including being the assistant administrative rules coordinator for the Department of Administration. From there, I went to work for the State Board of Education as their policy and governmental affairs person, and then I made the jump to here in late October 2007.

How has your job changed since you took over ISBA?

I have a way-different management style than my predecessor, Dr. [Clifford] Green. Hierarchy never made any sense to me.

But you acknowledge that you're the face of this organization. You're regularly testifying before legislative committees.

I love it. It's the favorite part of my job. I'm confident with my topic.

Most people would be terrified at the prospect of testifying.

I do still get some butterflies, but I like to stand up in front of committees and present the perspectives of our ISBA members.

How many members do you have?

It's about 560; 113 of Idaho's 115 school districts are members.

Why would the other two not join?

Mullan in North Idaho hasn't been a member for years. I don't have an answer why. And then several years ago, Mountain Home dropped out. They said they couldn't justify the dues.

How are the dues calculated?

It's based on two measures: school population and the amount of [maintenance and operation] funds they receive from the state.

How would you characterize the ISBA's current relationship with the Boise Independent School Board of Trustees?

There was some friction this past fall.

Has it been repaired?

The Boise School Board is not always in agreement with the majority opinion of our association. As executive director, how do I keep everyone in the fold? Our ultimate goal is always what's best for the students. How we get there ... well, we may not always agree on those issues.

But Boise has come very close to pulling out of the ISBA.

We certainly don't want that. I just spoke with [Boise School Board President A.J.] Balukoff and he asked about some specific training we could provide. I think the relationship with the association is always tenuous.

Let's talk about another school board, in Nampa. They're drowning in a $4.3 million budget shortfall based on bad accounting, and now they're facing furloughs, transportation issues, new activity fees and a levy vote. Wasn't poor governance at the heart of that problem?

We've looked at a list to see which school boards received governance training and we found school boards that we've seen in the news recently -- Nampa, Garden Valley, Coeur d'Alene--those are the districts that haven't had training for a while, and we offer free governance training every three years.

What's at risk?

Textbooks, transportation, curriculum. It's huge. When you think about it, one-half of the state budget goes to school districts, and school board members are responsible for the management. When you talk about that responsibility on their shoulders, governance is huge.

How would you best describe the state of education funding in Idaho?

One of the things the state will really have to look at is our funding formula and our supplemental levies. For instance, the Boise School District has nearly twice as much funding per student as its neighboring district in Meridian. And when you get out into our rural areas, some of them can't even pass a supplemental levy to put a roof on a building or hire a part-time teacher.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original next question to Ms. Evecherria was "Is it fair to say that Idaho public education funding is a system of have's and have-nots?" It was not: "Is it fair that Idaho public education is a system of have's and have-nots?"

Is it fair to say that Idaho public education funding is a system of have's and have-nots?


So what does Plan B look like?

I have no idea. Someone with a mind like [House Speaker Scott] Bedke is going to have to tackle that.

No doubt the debate over the governor's proposal to eliminate Idaho's personal property tax will be part of that conversation.

If business personal property tax goes away, that will be a significant cut to a lot of school districts, and they'll probably have to turn around and increase the taxes to property owners. If they do that, those voters are going to think twice about supplemental levies to help fund education.

Do you expect proposed legislation concerning school safety to surface?

We're not sure. They call that a sleeper. We haven't heard of anyone who's going to run with that legislation. If they do, obviously, we would be involved with it.

Let's talk about last November's voter repeal of the Students Come First initiatives. What's the immediate fallout from that?

I don't think the public was aware that $30 million was left on the table, and we have to figure out what to do with that money. We don't want that going toward business personal property taxes. We want that to go to school districts.

Won't that have to be determined very soon?

A series of payments go out to school districts and the next one is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 1. And right, now the check to schools will be minus some of that money because voters turned down the propositions on technology and students who want to take dual-enrollment courses. The likelihood of the Legislature passing an appropriation bill and the governor signing it is, in my opinion, slim to none.

How do you rectify that?

Maybe schools will have to wait until May 1 or maybe we try to get another payment somehow. To a school district like Meridian, that's something like $5 million and that's a huge cash flow.

We haven't seen much of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna since voters rejected those laws.

I don't think we're going to see much more of him soon. I think he's going to lay quiet for a while. These were definitely initiatives that he wanted. Obviously, he was the face of it. He took some hits that were unwarranted.

A generation ago, education didn't intersect with politics as much as it does today.

It has become very political. I have grave concerns. We shouldn't be Democrats or Republicans at the school board level. I would hate to see the level of governance at the local school board level be attacked or go away.

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