The budget put forth by new Idaho Schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra was on Ketchum voters’ minds this week when District 26 representatives held a town hall meeting Friday, Feb. 6, in Ketchum City Hall.

    District 26-A representative Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, and District 26-B representative Donna Pence, D-Gooding, were accompanied by Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum. They discussed legislative issues and took audience questions.

    Pence, a retired teacher and longtime education advocate, said she “finally got an idea” of where Ybarra was going with policy when she presented her education budget Jan. 28 to the Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee.

    “I don’t want to say there’s an absence of leadership, but [there are questions surrounding Ybarra’s stance on key issues],” Pence said.

    Ybarra asked for a 6.4 percent increase to public school funding next year—a full point lower than Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed increase. Not only that, she hopes to bring the creative funding strategies she employed as principal of Mountain Home’s West Elementary School to statewide practice.

    “She wants innovative funds,” Pence said. “[Her plan is to have] a volunteer cadre of eight to 10 school districts to come up with different ways to fund teachers.”

    “That’s a pretty big bite,” she added. “But some might be willing to step up.”

    In other Idaho education news, teacher salaries and a proposed three-step career ladder pay plan seems to be tied up in the Legislature due to “misinterpretation,” Pence said. Pence is in favor of a gradual increase to teacher salaries statewide, she said.

    Pence also said Idaho’s educational system is becoming more data-driven, rather than student-driven.

    “It’s not a rosy picture, but that’s where we are,” she said, citing the need for Idaho’s universities to increase tuition.

    “I wish we could’ve allocated money to give our in-state students a break,” she said.  

     Miller and Stennett got to the meeting about 20 minutes late, but Miller jumped in on the education conversation upon arrival, commenting on the disparities between school bond levies passing or not passing in different Idaho townships.

    “Schools and communities have ownership [of the success or failure of their school systems],” he said. “Part of it is confidence. Then the bond levies get passed.”

    Pence agreed, saying that studies show closely knit communities have better school systems.

    The state of Idaho’s roads and bridges was perhaps the second-most discussed issue at Friday’s meeting. Stennett said roughly one in four miles of roads in Idaho are classified as poor, and at least 700 bridges in the state are deficient.

   Legislators discussed the different means the state has for financing the hundreds of millions needed to keep roads and bridges safe. The goal, whether by gas or registration taxes, is to charge the people who use vehicles the most, Stennett said. She said trucking companies have approached the Legislature, offering to pay higher auto-related taxes as a result of their wear and tear on state roads. Miller countered that it’s important to remember that truckers perform a service to everyone.

“There’s no one in this room who doesn’t benefit from truck freight,” he said.

County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg was in the audience, and he commented that legislators should consider weight and mileage for applicable taxes, since the age of the car doesn’t make a huge difference in ecological footprint.

Introduced by a resident with concerns about Idaho’s mental-health landscape, a proposed Medicaid redesign could be a way of improving the state’s resources for the mentally ill, Stennett said.

She said thousands of Idahoans were falling through the cracks in the state healthcare system—there are 10,000 uninsured war veterans in the state who need help, she said.

    Miller said the problem would take more than a Medicaid redesign to fix.

    “We need to look at the[ capital] fund, indigency and intercepting people going [to the emergency room],” he said.

    “If we don’t deal with it in a large scope, it won’t get done,” Miller said. “[Idaho] is the only state in the nation with a health exchange that works.”

    Among other issues discussed was the recent failure of the “Add the Words” bill to give housing and employment protection to gay, lesbian and transgendered Idahoans. The bill could be reintroduced with a “religious freedom” component, legislators said.

    “There’s not a lot of willingness to change the bill by its creators,” Stennett said.

Email the writer: abusek@mtexpress.com

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