The legislative session may have ended three months ago, but the policy work continues for a number of local lawmakers.
Five lawmakers from north central Idaho — as well as several other local officials — were appointed to various interim committees and gubernatorial task forces this year. They’ll spend the summer and fall focusing on a range of issues, from rural school needs to salmon recovery efforts and broadband services.
For example, Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, was named co-chairman of the Opportunities in Rural and Under-served Schools subcommittee of the governor’s Our Kids, Idaho’s Future Task Force.
The overall task force, which has 25 members, will help develop the next five-year plan for improving Idaho’s public school system. Four separate subcommittees were appointed as well, to address such issues as rural school needs, facilities and school safety, budget issues and teacher recruitment and retention.
Crabtree noted that “there’s a lot of crossover” between the four focus areas. Teacher retention, for example, is a major concern for rural districts that may not have the amenities — or money — to attract highly qualified teachers.
“So they’re getting kids just out of college, giving them three years of experience, and then they move on to Washington where they get paid better,” he said. “Do we really want our rural schools to be training grounds for other districts?”
How to cope with a smaller property tax base is another issue rural districts face. Wealthy districts can pass supplemental levies at minimal cost to taxpayers, Crabtree said, while even modest levies for basic necessities represent a sizable burden for taxpayers in small districts.
The result, he said, is that the West Ada School District in Boise can afford to offer culinary arts classes, while schools in his legislative district struggle just to heat their math classrooms.
That said, Crabtree noted that a number of rural districts around the state have developed innovative programs to improve student performance and address other needs.
“We need to look at the differences between those districts that are struggling and those that are doing well,” he said. “I’m optimistic and enthusiastic about what we can do for rural schools.”
Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, also serves on the rural schools subcommittee with Crabtree.
“I’m excited to be a part of it,” she said. “I was told (during the legislative session) I was under consideration and was asked if this was an area of interest to me. I love rural issues; that’s my passion, so I said yes, please.”
The subcommittee has only had one meeting to date, but Troy’s sense is that it’s working on a “very aggressive” timeline.
“I got the sense it’s only going to meet four to six times (before coming forward with recommendations),” she said. “Schools are one of the most important things for rural areas to have healthy communities. I’m hopeful we can identify some things to make life easier for them.”
Nezperce Superintendent Shawn Tiegs, Potlatch educator Marianne Sletteland and Genesee School Board Trustee Jennifer Parkins also serve on the rural schools subcommittee.
Parkins, who is president of the Idaho School Boards Association, also serves on the Our Kids, Idaho’s Future Task Force, together with Matt Van Vleet at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories.
Other interim appointments for local lawmakers include:
Rep. Bill Goesling, R-Moscow, was appointed to the School Facilities and School Safety subcommittee of the Our Kids, Idaho’s Future Task Force.
Similar to the rural schools subcommittee, this group will look at problems dealing with school facilities and providing a safe learning environment.
“I think the overall idea — breaking the task force down into smaller subcommittees and coming up with a few workable recommendations — is a good one,” Goesling said.
Like Troy, his impression is the subcommittees are on a tight deadline.
“I think our input is supposed to go to the governor by Oct. 10, so he can include it in his (fiscal 2020) budget,” Goesling said. “That only leaves us August and September. We need to come up with a couple of recommendations, so what do we want to prioritize?”
Lewiston School Board Chairman Brad Rice was appointed to the facilities subcommittee as well.
Goesling was also appointed to the Legislature’s Child Protection Oversight interim committee, which oversees Idaho’s foster care system.
“I was put on the committee because of my background,” said Goesling, who previously served as a volunteer with Washington’s CASA program.
As a court-appointed special advocate, his responsibility was to advocate for foster children, to make sure their interests weren’t being ignored or undermined by a bureaucratic social services system. He sees the interim committee as playing a similar role at the policy level.
“Nationally, the foster care system just isn’t working,” Goesling said. “There is intense pressure to reunite kids with families, and I’m not sure that’s always in their best interests. I’m also concerned about the (sometimes contentious) relationship between foster parents and social workers. We need a good, solid review of the whole system.”
Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, was recently appointed to the governor’s Salmon Workgroup, which brings together a number of stakeholders to advise the governor on salmon and steelhead recovery efforts.
Other members of the work group include Joe Oatman with the Nez Perce Tribe, Dave Doeringsfeld with the Port of Lewiston and Roy Akins with the Idaho River Community Alliance.
Johnson was also appointed to the Committee on Federalism, a newly established legislative committee tasked with reviewing any federal laws or regulations that might affect Idaho’s sovereignty, and determining whether they represent federal overreach.
The 10-member committee hasn’t met yet. Johnson said he’s “anxious to see what the focus and priorities will be.”
Johnson co-sponsored a related bill last session that would have created an eight-member legislative council specifically to look at federal land issues. However, that measure was essentially combined with the legislation that created the Committee on Federalism.
Crabtree will also serve on the Committee on Federalism.
Crabtree and Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, were recently appointed to the governor’s new Idaho Broadband Task Force, which will provide recommendations on how to “dramatically improve” broadband telecommunications services around the state.
“I didn’t realize how bad things were, even in areas I thought had good service,” Crabtree said. “My brother lives between Kuna and Boise, and his download speed is 2.5 (megabits per second). That’s the same as I have outside of Grangeville.”
Broadband, by comparison, is typically defined as download speeds of 25 megabits per second or higher.
“It’s a real barrier to economic development if you don’t have that type of connectivity,” Nelson said. “The businesses don’t form in the first place, and people don’t want to move to the area.”
The task force is still compiling data regarding the status of internet service in Idaho, so it hasn’t gotten to the solutions stage yet. However, “I know we need to do something,” Crabtree said. “This is critical to rural Idaho, which can’t attract industry or young people (because of inadequate telecommunication services). We’re turning rural Idaho into a retirement community.”
Nelson said he’s hopeful the task force can recommend some good solutions to the problem.
“One thing we’ve already talked about is making sure that, when any road work is done, that we bury conduit (for fiber-optic lines),” he said.
Jaynie Bentz, assistant manager at the Port of Lewiston, was also appointed to the task force, along with Jaap Vos with the University of Idaho and Danae Wilson with the Nez Perce Tribe.
Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, serves as an ad hoc member of the Natural Resources Interim Committee.
Moscow School Superintendent Greg Bailey and Kathy McPherson with the Lewiston School District business office were appointed to the K-12 Budget Stability and Strategic Alignment subcommittee of the Our Kids, Idaho’s Future Task Force. Van Vleet also serves on that subcommittee.
Moscow School Board Chairwoman Leslie Baker was appointed to the Educator Pipeline subcommittee of the task force, which will address teacher recruitment and retention issues.
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