State schools chief race a heated contest


TWIN FALLS — With only four months for voters to decide who will oversee Idaho’s public schools, a former deputy schools superintendent and a 17-year educator are campaigning hard to replace Tom Luna, who isn’t seeking re-election.

Democrat Jana Jones, of Idaho Falls, was the chief deputy superintendent of schools from 2004 to 2006. She lost the superintendent election to Luna by only 2 percentage points. She also worked for the state Department of Education and former state superintendents Jerry Evans, Anne Fox and Marilyn Howard.

Republican Sherri Ybarra won a four-way primary in May to become the GOP candidate. The teacher is director of federal programs and curriculum for the Mountain Home School District.

The state’s educational system must have a schools chief who can hit the ground running, Jones said.

“We don’t have time for someone to learn the job,” she said.

But Ybarra would make a superb superintendent because she’s focused on children, not politics, Ybarra campaign co-manager Tim Corder said.

Corder was a state senator from 2004 to 2012.

“From the very start, her goal has been to focus on

the whole child,” he said.

So far, Jones has raised about 70 times more campaign money than Ybarra.

The fact that Ybarra raised little money yet won the Republican nomination is a story in itself, said Jim Weatherby, a political analyst and professor emeritus at Boise State University.

But even in a Republican state, Jones has a good chance of winning, Weatherby said, because of her strong fundraising and experience in the superintendent’s office, as well as running a statewide campaign.

Jones, a 40-year educator, has a wide range of experience. In addition to her deputy superintendent experience, she led former Gov. Cecil Andrus’ Office of Children and founded Progressive Day School, an early childhood center in Idaho Falls.

The challenge for both candidates is to distinguish their positions, Weatherby said.

“I think it’s hard right now, on a policy basis, to make a lot of significant distinctions about what Sherri Ybarra or Jana Jones would do as state superintendent,” he said.

Both women, for example, said they sup- port Common Core Standards, early childhood education and recommendations from the gover-

nor’s Task Force for

Improving Education.

If elected, Jones said one of her priorities would be to restore public trust in the office.

“It has been very diminished over the past eight years, and we need people to trust there is strong leadership in that position,” she said.

Jones also questioned the Legislature’s 2006 decision to tie education funding to the sales tax.

“We need to look at finding a stable source of funding so when the economy takes a dive, we know that schools are not going to be hurt by it,” Jones said.

Ybarra was on vacation and unavailable for an interview, Corder said, but Idaho has stretched education funding to “a very thin level.”

According to Ybarra’s campaign website, “I can make recommendations in regards to funding, and I plan on doing that, but first, I need an opportunity to see what’s working for Idaho.”

The vast majority of Idaho’s public school districts — 91 of 115 — have voter-approved supplemental levys to help pay basic operating expenses.

Corder said Ybarra would function well in the political arena and bring people together to solve problems. She is a proponent of local control, allowing school districts and charter schools to “make decisions and hold them responsible for that,” he said

Ybarra’s campaign plans to change its fundraising approach.

“The effort has been intentionally low-key during the primary,” Corder said. “We know that’s going to have to change.”

Ybarra is seeking help from a Boise firm that Corder declined to name.

Fundraising events are being scheduled, he said, and the campaign has sent letters to legislators and lobbyists and called people for support.

Jones ended the latest campaign finance filing period with a substantial monetary advantage.

“I feel very positive about the support I’m receiving from individual people throughout the state of Idaho,” she said.

She said she’s not aware of her donors’ political affiliations.

Jones closed the quarter ending in June with $20,615.18 in her campaign account. Ybarra had $293.87. From May 5 to May 30, Jones raised $7,387.36, mostly from individual contributions.

Ybarra raised $300 during that period — $250 of it from the campaign of state Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a member of the House Education Committee.

Voters will choose the state superintendent in the general election Nov. 4.