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Viewpoint: Superintendent Ybarra discusses the big issues for Idaho public schools

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra weighs in on COVID-related school staff shortages, teacher pay raises and early literacy.

BOISE, Idaho — Has your child had a substitute teacher recently? Has their school even had to close because so many students, teachers and staff members were out sick with COVID? 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said the state has been working to help school districts affected by staffing shortages caused by COVID-related absences.

Many school districts have had to temporarily close schools or move to remote learning this month because of the high number of teacher and student absences. Schools across the state are also dealing with shortages of cafeteria workers, bus drivers and substitute teachers. 

Districts, including West Ada and Kuna, are even bumping up pay for substitutes for a few weeks to help meet the need and keep schools open.

Superintendent Ybarra calls the substitute teacher shortage "very severe."

"I worked with Governor Little while he gave my department $10 million to distribute out to schools and districts to help increase the pay for our substitutes because the staffing shortage is across the board," Supt. Ybarra said. "It's not only just teachers, it's those folks that you might see in the lunchroom. It's those people you might see helping the kids in the back of the classroom with extra tutoring because of learning loss during the pandemic and during those school closures. So that was a big help. Also in my budget you will see an ask for 6% increase for those paraprofessionals that are the folks that I just mentioned."

Ybarra said they are also offering incentives for state level employees to get out and substitute teach where needed. She added that the $10 million for substitute teacher pay bumps expired in December, so districts are using their COVID relief dollars now.

As the current situation plays out, Ybarra is also looking to the future. She presented her K-12 public school budget request to the legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee earlier this month.

She requested a total budget of $2.21 billion for the 2022-23 school year. That is a 6.4% Increase over this year's. In that request she's asking for $74.5 million for teacher pay raises, including more than $25 million for this school year. She also supports the $1,000 teacher bonuses Governor Brad Little proposed in his budget, which she said she asked him to include. 

Those bonuses would be paid with COVID relief money. Superintendent Ybarra's proposed budget also requests $39.3 million for optional full-day kindergarten for at-risk kids who are below grade level in reading.

In his budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 Gov. Brad Little is asking lawmakers to bump up funding for public schools by $300 million over the current year's budget. 

If lawmakers approve it, that would be an 11% increase. It includes $104 million for teacher pay raises, which works out to a 10% raise for each Idaho teacher. Plus, he wants to give teachers a $1,000 bonus using COVID relief funds. 

The governor also proposed a $47 million increase for literacy programs that local school districts could use for full-day kindergarten, reading coaches or other literacy programs. 

His budget request also includes $50 million for Empowering Parents Grants. The grants would cover things such as computers, tutoring, internet connectivity and other needs.

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