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"Empire" actor Jussie Smollett leaves Cook County jail following his release, Thursday in Chicago. Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct and filling a false police report when he said he was attacked in downtown Chicago by two men who hurled racist and anti-gay slurs and looped a rope around his neck, a police said.

Magic Valley lawmaker introduces teacher loan forgiveness bill

BOISE — As small, rural schools in the Magic Valley and across the state struggle to recruit and retain certified teachers, a south-central Idaho lawmaker hopes to alleviate the educator shortage by offering a student loan forgiveness program to teachers in certain districts.

A bill from Rep. Sally Toone, a Democrat from Gooding, would provide about $12,000 in loan assistance to teachers working in rural or economically disadvantaged schools over a four-year period. The goal of the bill, introduced Thursday, is not just to attract teachers to these schools, but to keep them around.

“We have to have tools in our toolbox,” Toone told the Times-News. “It won’t fit everybody. But it’s an opportunity to try to keep teachers here.”

While programs such as Teach for America have helped place teachers in some of Idaho’s struggling schools, such programs typically attract temporary, non-certified teachers, Toone said. Her bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, would offer assistance only to teachers who have already received their certification.

“I want to focus on people that have education as their end goal,” Toone said. “For my granddaughter who’s in the second grade, I want a certified teacher for her.”

The bill would offer loan assistance for up to four years, as long as the teacher stays employed in the same district. The first year he or she would receive $1,500; the second year, $2,500; the third year, $3,500; and the fourth year, $4,500.

This isn’t the first year Toone has worked on similar legislation, but this year’s bill contains a key difference. While the previous version applied only to rural school districts, this year’s bill includes both rural districts and economically disadvantaged districts — meaning that teachers in a poor urban district could receive funding as well.

“We have teacher shortages there too, and those are hard-to-reach kids,” Toone told the Times-News. “We really don’t need those schools struggling to get teachers.”

Another difference: the increase in loan assistance each year. Last year’s bill offered $3,000 for each of the four years.

In a hearing Thursday before the House Education Committee to introduce the bill, Ward-Engelking said she hoped the year-by-year loan assistance would incentivize teachers to stick around long enough to “fall in love” with their schools and communities.

“We want them to stay the entire time because we think at that point they will be invested in that community and want to stay there,” Ward-Engelking told the committee.

The bill’s sponsors estimate that the program would cost the state about $1 million per year, with an additional $50,000 in administration costs.

After a unanimous vote by the House Education Committee, headed by Twin Falls lawmaker Rep. Lance Clow, the bill will receive a formal committee hearing.

P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E: Getting ready for the spelling bee spotlight

TWIN FALLS — Never has the word “juniper” been so exciting.

For Pepper Kelm, a fourth-grader at Morningside Elementary, it was the word that helped her win the school spelling bee.

“I’m so glad that it was juniper,” Pepper said. “That word is easy.”

She considers herself lucky to win; she didn’t take her competition lightly. She was awestruck by her fellow classmates who put up a good fight, but her skills are not to be sniffed at.

Now, the real challenge begins with the regional spelling bee. Suddenly, the words are much more challenging. Words like tsunami, langosta and hoomalimali are just a taste of what’s to come.

Pepper is just one of 54 students from 28 south-central Idaho schools who will compete in Monday’s fifth annual Times-News Regional Spelling Bee. Students from first grade through eighth grade will compete.

Each participating school, depending on its size, will send its top two or three spellers to regionals. The winner of the Times-News Regional Spelling Bee will advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, to be held May 27 through May 30 in National Harbor, Md.

Each of the contestants receives a packet with up to 1,150 words that they must memorize, said Keith Kelm, Pepper’s father. The packet takes the students on a mini-world tour, with each page exploring the different origins for words.

There are words from Japan, Greece, Germany, Hawaii and even a trip back in time to visit Old English.

“You follow these rules of the English language and they don’t always make sense,” Keith said. “This packet helps them learn why these exceptions are like that.”


Fourth grade student Pepper Kelm and her father Keith Kelm go over Pepper's words as she prepares for the Regional Spelling Bee on Tuesday at her home in Twin Falls.

Keith and Pepper practice an hour every day; he reads the words out loud to her as she looks at them.

What’s her secret to memorizing words? Usually, she looks at the word for a long time and she breaks it into manageable parts. Suddenly the challenge that was before her seems a little bit smaller.

“I think I need to learn how to spell by the time I’m a grown-up,” Pepper said. “If I don’t, people will think I’m a weirdo or something.”

Medicaid expansion repeal effort fails in Idaho committee

BOISE — Two pieces of legislation to repeal a voter-approved law expanding Medicaid in Idaho failed Thursday.

The House Health and Welfare Committee in separate 7-5 votes returned both pieces of legislation to sponsors, killing both efforts.

The first introductory piece of legislation was an outright repeal of the expansion. The second would have repealed the expansion in several years if expected savings involving other health care expenses absorbed by the state and counties didn’t result.

The majority of the committee rejected arguments made by Republican Reps. Julianne Young and John Green that Idaho voters were uninformed when they passed the initiative in November with 61 percent.

“I don’t buy the argument, at least in my legislative district, that the voters weren’t informed about exactly what they were buying and where the money was going to come from and what it was going to do,” said Republican Rep. Fred Wood, the committee’s chairman.

Voters authorized Medicaid expansion with an initiative in November after years of inaction by the Idaho Legislature. The expansion will provide access to preventative health care services for about 91,000 low-income Idaho residents, according to a risk management company hired by the state. The federal government would cover 90 percent of the estimated $400 million cost.

When legislation is initially brought before a committee, members typically vote on whether it meets technical aspects to advance to a hearing where the public can comment. Green argued such a hearing was needed for the legislation to immediately repeal the expansion due to disinformation supplied to voters in November.

“I think it’s our duty to air all the arguments, all the sides on this very important bill, so at least the public has the chance to learn from their mistakes for next time,” Green said.

Besides disagreeing with Green and Young that voters were uninformed, several lawmakers also said the 61 percent approval of voters was just too big a number to ignore.

“If anyone bears the blame it’s us,” said Republican Rep. Jarom Wagoner. “That we did not do something within those six or seven years — we’ve had ample opportunity. And so the voters took it upon themselves to do it.”

On related fronts, a Senate panel earlier this month voted to hold a hearing to drop Medicaid expansion if the federal government reduces the percentage it pays for the program. That hearing hasn’t yet been held.

Also earlier this month, the state Supreme Court ruled that the voter-approved initiative was legal following a challenge from a conservative group that argued it was unconstitutional.

Medicaid expansion in Idaho will be tracked so lawmakers can see how much it’s costing and where the money is going.

Medicaid Division Administrator Matt Wimmer also told lawmakers there will be decreases in the cost of some other state programs with the expansion.

Gretel Kauffman / COURTESY PHOTO  


If you do one thing

If you do one thing: A community dance will feature music by the Shadows Band from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Snake River Elks Lodge, 412 E. 200 S., Jerome. Admission is $5.


Buhl's Alan Jaramillo (front) defeats teammate Benn Winkle during the District IV wrestling tournament Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, at Kimberly High School.

A bill making its way through the Legislature could boost minimum teacher pay to $40,000

TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley school officials say a proposal to raise Idaho’s minimum teacher salary to $40,000 over two years is a great step and they’re grateful, but they’re concerned about pay for experienced teachers.

The House Education Committee passed House Bill 153 on Wednesday. The bill aims to raise the minimum base salary to $38,500 next school year and $40,000 for the 2020-21 school year.

“I appreciate the efforts that the governor and the Legislature are making to up those minimum salaries to attract teachers,” Jerome School District Superintendent Dale Layne said. “It’s needed.”

But on the flip side, something needs to be done about salaries for teachers with 10-plus years of experience, he said. “They’ve seen very little raise over the last couple of years.”

This school year, the minimum Idaho teacher salary is $35,800. Some Magic Valley school districts add money to supplement their salary schedules beyond what the state provides. Teacher pay is negotiated each year between school districts and teachers unions.

Idaho’s five-year career ladder law — which is in its fourth year — was designed to boost pay to better attract and retain teachers amidst a statewide teacher shortage.

In addition to funding the last year of the career ladder, Gov. Brad Little’s proposed budget for next fiscal year includes about $11.46 million to raise the starting salary for teachers. But under the House bill, money would be allocated over two years instead: $3.79 million the first year and $7.66 million the second.

Improving minimum teacher pay is much needed, said Darin Gonzales, president of the Kimberly Education Association (a teachers union). Gonzales, who started teaching in 1991, has been a math teacher at Kimberly High School since 1999.

“It’s a great incentive,” he said, noting Idaho needs great people coming into education.

Before teachers get too far into their career, Gonzales said, they can gain experience by using Idaho as a stepping stone and then find a job in another state. “There are a lot of people who don’t stay.”

But veteran teachers who’ve dedicated their lives to teaching and to Idaho “have been shortchanged over and over again,” Gonzales said, adding that’s tough on morale.

The problem isn’t going to get better until state legislators act, he said. He understands they’re trying and it’s tough with state budget constraints, but, Gonzales said, it’s a matter of prioritizing what’s important.

“I think it’s going to bite them in the next five to 10 years until they address the veteran teachers who’ve stayed loyal to the state,” he said.

Experienced teachers are the foundation of education, Gonzales said. He said he has longtime colleagues down the hallway from him at Kimberly High who have classes that run so well, have few discipline problems among students and they’re experts in their field.

“It’s humbling to watch,” he said.

Beyond teacher pay, there’s also a need to address school administrator and classified staff pay, Gonzales said.

Idaho needs to recruit teachers and increasing the minimum salary will help with that, said Peggy Hoy, co-president of the Twin Falls Education Association.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” said Hoy, instructional coach at Vera C. O’Leary Middle School. She said she’s excited about Little’s vision for Idaho education.

However, it’s hard when pay increases amounting to thousands of dollars are given to teachers who are just starting out in their career, Hoy said, but teachers who have been “in the trenches” and who mentor new teachers are seeing much lower increases.

Brady Dickinson, superintendent of the Twin Falls School District, said he’s appreciative of the work being done over the last five years to improve teacher pay in Idaho. It will help get more teachers into the pipeline, he said, and attract more young teachers.

“The career ladder has been a huge step forward for Idaho and we’ve made tremendous strides,” Dickinson said.

The Twin Falls School District supplements pay beyond what the state provides for some rungs on the career ladder, but not for the minimum teacher salary.

It’s concerning there hasn’t been much done for experienced teachers. Dickinson said, and he hopes that will be addressed in the coming years.

“You’re starting to see more frustration for veteran teachers.”