TWIN FALLS — “I have kind of a Cinderella story.”
Renee Carraway-Johnson’s skinny jeans, black leather vest and boots might not look like the garb of the fairy-tale princess, but don’t let that deceive you. Over the past three decades, she’s worked herself up from a part-time secretary to the head of the city’s planning and zoning department. Any new development in Twin Falls since the early 2000s has come across her desk first.
That’s quite a success story, especially for someone without a college degree in planning. But next month, Carraway-Johnson is leaving behind her career of 27 years as she retires from the city.
“I am going to miss the city very, very much,” she said during an interview Tuesday with the Times-News. “I think I’m at the end of what I can do.”
Carraway-Johnson, 64, has watched new technology change her department’s role with mapping — but says she personally avoids it as much as possible. She feels she could learn how to figure it out, but she doesn’t want to.
“I just want it to work,” she said, laughing.
Carraway-Johnson’s last day on the job will be April 20, and the city has started the search for her replacement. City Manager Travis Rothweiler said he’s appreciated Carraway-Johnson’s ability to balance developer’s needs with those of the community at large.
“She’s really seen significant change take place,” he said. “She’s really helped modify our zoning practices. She is very patient. She is certainly going to be missed.”
Carraway-Johnson was 16 when she came to Twin Falls from California’s Bay Area. To this day, her father claims she didn’t talk to him for years after the move.
“My parents dragged me up here screaming and fighting,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why are they taking me to Iowa?’”
Despite her early resentment of the area, in 1985 she was looking for work in Twin Falls when she got a job as a part-time secretary for the city manager. Months later, Carraway-Johnson took a full-time position as the secretary for the Twin Falls city engineer.
In 1988, she left the area for Spanish Fork, Utah, on a brief adventure that didn’t work out. When she returned in the early ‘90s, she started working with planning and zoning. From there, she eventually worked her way to up take LaMar Orton’s director position in 2005 — under a new title of “Zoning and Development Manager.”
Today, Carraway-Johnson leads a department of five people.
“The planning and zoning department technically is the first stop for somebody who wants to develop something,” she said. “We are the keepers of the land use of the city.”
Following her retirement, she expects she will either volunteer or work another kind of job. But even if she has to leave her home that’s outside of Twin Falls’ city limits, she probably won’t leave the area.
“I’ve made sure there were plenty of retirement homes here for me to choose from,” she said.
As Carraway-Johnson reflects on her career with the planning and zoning department, the development of northwest Twin Falls is what she’s most proud of. And a lot of that change took place along Pole Line Road.
“I touched every plan, every developer,” she said.
For her, it really started with Walmart. The company tried twice in the early 2000s to come to Twin Falls, but either the location or the boxy design of the building was a no-go for the city. Finally, a development agreement along Cheney Drive West and Washington Street North made both sides happy with the end result.
The growth didn’t stop there.
“Between 2003 and 2006, the city annexed 2,500 acres,” Carraway-Johnson said. “All of that property was being developed, and it was me and LaMar — that’s it.”
And later, after the new hospital was built at the outskirts of the city, the city grew outward to meet it.
“We all knew that would happen,” she said.
The substantial growth of Twin Falls, however, doesn’t surprise her.
“We have always been a diamond in the rough,” Carraway-Johnson said. “If you don’t grow, you stagnate.”
Her straightforward attitude on the job is a reflection of her own spunky personality — something she’s let shine through more with her years of experience.
“I believe in what’s right and wrong. I believe in this community. And I will fight for both.”
TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley school leaders are divided on a proposal moving through the Idaho legislature to create a scholarship fund to help some families pay for private school tuition.
House Bill 590, which would create a “Guided Education Management Act,” was introduced Feb. 14 and narrowly passed the House — with a 39-31 vote — on Monday.
It would allow students who are at risk, from low-income families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, have special needs, or children of active duty military members or whose parent was killed in the line of duty to receive a scholarship to help pay for private school expenses.
Supporters of the bill say it provides more choices for students in need. But opponents counter it would divert money away from the public education system and is a veiled attempt at creating a school voucher system.
“I was actually really disappointed that it passed the House,” said Brady Dickinson, superintendent of the Twin Falls School District. “I know myself and many other superintendents in the area contacted legislators directly about the potential for opening the door for public funding to go toward private education.”
No state general fund money would be used, but the bill calls for the Idaho State Board of Education — which has unanimously opposed the legislation — to oversee the scholarship fund.
If signed into law, families could use scholarship money for qualifying private school expenses such as tuition, fees, textbooks and other instructional materials, and computers. Money would come from private contributions, gifts and grants.
Kevin Newbry, superintendent at the private Lighthouse Christian School in Twin Falls, is following the bill closely. “It’s definitely a great move in the right direction,” he said.
Newbry said he sees it as “win-win,” especially in places where public schools are overcrowded and dealing with budget issues. “This can only help them,” he said, adding public and private schools are in it together with educating children.
Some groups such as the Idaho Education Association feel they’re going to lose dollars, Newbry said, but he thinks it will save state money because scholarships will be funded by outside sources and not from state coffers.
The bill, he said, is a great opportunity for people who can’t afford a private education or Christian education to have the ability to pursue it. “It’s obviously falls in line with school choice.”
Dickinson said he believes in school choice and parents’ right to choose what’s best for their kids.
“But with one of the lowest funded education systems in the nation, it’s just challenging in Idaho where we’re scramming to use every dollar of public funding effectively,” he said.
Idaho’s Constitution is pretty direct with the separation of church and state, Dickinson said, and most of Idaho’s private schools are religiously affiliated. On its face, the bill may seem like a small change, he said, but “it has the potential to become a slippery slope.” Dickinson said it’s difficult to say how the Twin Falls School District’s enrollment could be affected if the bill becomes law, but doesn’t think it would cause a drastic difference.
Dickinson said he’s worried it may open up the door to a voucher system or more tax credit systems in Idaho.
It’s a concern shared by a handful of Idaho education groups — including the Idaho Association of School Administrators, Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho Education Association and Parent Teacher Association — which have also opposed the bill, Idaho Education News reported Monday.
On Monday, IEA president Kari Overall issued a statement, calling the House’s action “very disappointing” and saying it’s an “unnecessary bill that could pave the way for diverting public funds to private and religious schools.”
Tiffany Mayes, a parent and school board president at Acorn Learning Center — a Twin Falls private school that serves preschool through fifth-graders — said she doesn’t think the topic has come up among the board.
Newbry said private school families are already paying taxes toward the public education system and private school tuition on top of that. Lighthouse Christian School — which serves more than 300 students from kindergarten through 12th grades — charges yearly tuition and registration fees ranging from $3,570 to $5,807, depending on the grade level.
About 40 percent of students receive financial aid or a discount, such as for multiple children in the same family and free or half-priced tuition for school employees.
In total, the school provides about $300,000 in discounts every year. Even with financial assistance, a private school education is “still a big commitment on families,” Newbry said.
One thing that helps, though, is a federal law that went into effect in December to expand 529 education savings accounts to include private kindergarten through 12th grades, he said. “That’s huge.”
The Idaho legislature’s bill has led to strong responses on both sides. And with the session likely wrapping up later this month, many education officials will be watching closely.
If you do one thing: Indie Lens Pop-up features a free screening of the documentary “Dolores” at 6:30 p.m. at Twin Falls Center for the Arts, 195 River Vista Place. A moderated discussion follows the film. Free slice of pizza is available at 6 p.m.
BOISE — Idaho’s House on Tuesday rejected a proposal that would have prevented convicted domestic abusers from owning guns.
House GOP members voted 39-31 to prevent the measure from moving to the Senate after critics argued the bill infringed upon the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Statistics show if people want to have access to a gun, they will,” said Rep. Bryan Zollinger, a Republican from Idaho Falls, who opposed the bill. “But there’s just no way to enforce it.”
A recent opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s office countered that the bill did not violate constitutional rights.
Twenty Republican members — seven of whom are retiring from the Legislature — joined the House’s 11 Democratic members in support. Law enforcement agencies also supported the bill, arguing it would help them better protect communities
Efforts in Idaho to increase any hint of gun control are often blocked by GOP legislative leaders — especially in years like this one when all state lawmakers are up for re-election in the upcoming May primary election.
“We are saying if you’ve been convicted as a criminal, then you should not have a deadly weapon. That’s it,” said Rep. Melissa Wintrow, a Democrat from Boise, who sponsored the legislation. “We could save lives.”
The bill would have made it a misdemeanor for people convicted of domestic violence to possess firearms within two years of the convictions or the crimes. It did not instruct convicted domestic abusers to turn in the guns they already own, meaning it would have required abusers to follow an honor system.
Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation.
Supporters of the bill said the bill wasn’t about gun control, but about protecting families.
“I’m going to stand with battered women and children today, and I’d ask you to do the same thing,” said Republican Rep. Fred Wood, a retired physician who explained he supported the bill because he treated victims of domestic abuse for nearly 40 years.
Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter had not weighed in publicly about whether he supported or opposed the bill. He typically refrains from offering his opinion on legislation in the Statehouse unless it’s personally backed by his office.
Currently, federal law already bans anyone convicted of a misdemeanor or felony domestic violence charge from possessing a firearm. However, while the law applies to all 50 states, the federal statute is contingent on matching state laws in order for local officials and judges to enforce the ban. Wintrow’s bill was aimed at providing the matching law for Idaho.
BOISE — A Twin Falls lawmaker made headlines when he held a closed-door discussion in his office during a committee meeting Monday, a move that led some to question whether the senator had violated the state’s Open Meeting Law.
Sen. Lee Heider, chairman of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, came under fire Monday when he disrupted a committee meeting to ask members to meet privately in his office. The closed-door discussion came after another senator requested a hearing for HB 577, a bill that would legalize oil extracted from cannabis plants for medical purposes.
After the private meeting, which ended after a reporter yelled through the door at the lawmakers that they were violating Open Meeting Law, the committee voted to hold the bill, effectively killing its chances of becoming law this session. HB 577 had passed in the House 59-11.
Tuesday, Heider vacated the committee’s vote to halt the bill.
“The chair acknowledges violation of Senate Rule 20, in that an unnoticed and unapproved executive session occurred,” Heider told the committee, as reported by the Spokesman-Review. He asked for unanimous consent to “set aside the vote on March 5, 2018, because it violated Senate Rule 20.”Heider did not respond to an interview request from the Times-News.
Senate Rule 20 states that “all meetings of any standing, select, or special committee shall be open to the public at all times, and any person may attend any hearing of such committee.”
The Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the potential violation of Open Meeting Law or confirm whether it was looking into the matter.
Though the meeting was not open to journalists, the Associated Press reported that Heider could be heard “shouting” through the door.
“The governor’s office doesn’t want this bill, the prosecutors don’t want this bill, the office on drug policy doesn’t want this bill,” Heider said, as reported by the AP. HB 577 is not the first legislation to propose legalizing CBD oil in Idaho. A bill that would have let some children with epilepsy use the oil passed both the House and Senate in 2015, but was vetoed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.