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Marilyn Howard

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After informing the world that she would be undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard has since gone back to work. With a $1.45 billion budget request in the works, Howard has plenty to do. But she also has a limited time left in office. Republican Tom Luna and Democrat Jana Jones are running to replace Howard when she leaves office in January. Howard, a Democrat who succeeded Anne Fox, has endorsed Jones, who is the deputy superintendent of public instruction. In an interview with BW, Howard talks about moving on despite cancer, about Proposition 1, and about the nature of an elected education chief.

BW: I guess the first question to ask is, how are you feeling?

I'm feeling really well. I'm doing what everybody does: You take your treatments and you live your life.

In the rhetoric of the campaign season this year, the schools budget gets used as a bit of a football. One side will say, 'We've never not increased the budget for public schools.'

And that is true, on its face.

Proposition 1 proposes more money for schools. Do you support that measure?

I'm supportive from a philosophical standpoint. I'll just tell you the truth: I haven't really sat down with anyone since this last [Aug. 25 special session of the Idaho Legislature] to say, now, what are the proponents of Proposition 1 planning?

But philosophically, I'm supportive, and here's the reason: The initiative was saying that school boards need some local decision-making power. They have no local decision-making power because in a sense, every dollar of their budget is pre-spent, either by legislative directive or by economic reality. And we want them to have this money that would allow them to determine for themselves if they wanted to add remedial teachers, keep classroom levels down, [or] add enrichment courses.

So, to be specific, if you had to vote on Proposition 1 tomorrow, would you vote for it?

I would. It's a statement of how satisfied I am with the adequacy of our education funding.

After two terms as Superintendent of Public Instruction, do you think the position should be an elected one?

I think so. I believe there's more strength in an elected position. You really need to be credible to the electorate.

But the second part, if you're appointed, that can hinge on a number of factors: The intent of the person who appointed you [and] the intent of the person who is appointed. I have to say, I actually researched this. Across the nation, there are only a handful that are appointed. I have relished, in Idaho, my ability to be an independent voice for education. I think it's needed.

Can somebody do this job without a background in the classroom?

I don't know how.

You always see the job through your own lens. My lens has always been, how will this play out in practicality? It also helps to have been in a leadership role, because this is a big agency. You have to have managed groups of people that maybe are taller than your own kneecaps.

Both Tom Luna and Jana Jones would be stepping into a new role if they got your job. What would be the one piece of advice you'd give them?

I'd probably give them separate pieces of advice. For Tom Luna, I'd say, 'Don't touch anything.' [Laughs]

You know, I think the piece of advice is, never lie. There is a temptation in this job to publish good news and diminish bad news.

We will never spin our department data. When it goes out, it's going to go out pure and clear. We have to be as credible to people who criticize us as those who support us.

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