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Dr. Don Coberly and Coby Dennis

Boise School District administrators on trust, expectations and heroes

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Dr. Don Coberly and Coby Dennis are the two administrators at the helm of Boise School District No. 1, the second-largest district in Idaho next to Meridian. They are spending much of their time in an almost nonstop series of meetings in anticipation of the Tuesday, Aug. 22 start to the 2017-18 academic year and, as graduates of Borah High School, both men are products of the district they manage. What's more, Dennis is the son of the late Dehryl Dennis, who served as Boise School District superintendent in the mid-1990s.

"We're spending [a lot] of time meeting with all of our principals and assistants," said Coberly. "It's all about focusing on culture and trust, and reaffirming our high expectations."

Coberly and Dennis sat down to discuss those expectations as nearly 26,000 students prepared to begin another school year.

What are you talking about with your administrators and teachers this year that you didn't talk about in, say, 2010?

Coberly: For one, we're about to enter into our fourth year of the state's new career ladder for educators. Outside of the issue of pay raises for teachers, which have been hugely important, we have also awarded leadership stipends to roughly one-fourth to one-third of our teachers in Boise. Those stipends are probably the most effective way of rewarding people who want to do that extra work.

Can I assume it's not easy to secure a job as a teacher in the Boise School District?

Dennis: It's competitive. We have clearly invested in compensating our teachers in [a way] we think is fair. The top of our pay schedule is about $70,000.

How about the other end of the scale? What's the district's average base salary for a beginning teacher?

Coberly: Almost $37,000, but the real reason teachers want to work in this district goes beyond the money. It's our commitment to professional development.

I pulled out some notes from a conversation we had back in 2010. Things were quite different then: The district hadn't purchased new textbooks for three years running, there were staff reductions and the district even had to scatter the start times for some schools to shrink the transportation budget.

Coberly: I think we ended up cutting about $20 million out of the budget. Then, in 2012, we turned to the voters for approval of a levy in order to maintain class size, and we got that passed.

Fast forward to May this year, when you put another challenge in front of voters: a stunning $172.5 million bond.

Coberly: That won 86 percent approval. You don't get 86 percent approval for any measure unless there's a certain amount of trust and appreciation for teachers. It's not about us in the administrative offices. It's about the teachers. I can go out and talk to every civic organization in the city, but it's about teachers talking about what they need.

Dennis: This year's bond referendum was the district's biggest ask, ever.

That bond will ultimately fund nearly two dozen projects across the district for the next several years. Can you tell us what we'll see happening sooner than later?

Coberly: For example, Boise High School's gym was built in 1936, and Boise High's music building, right next door, was built in the 1950s. When it rained and snowed this past year, we had significant damage. Think about this: One of the finest high-school chamber orchestras in the country under a roof that leaks 24/7. Well, we're going to do something about that. Then, think about the boys and girls in 10 portable classrooms at Whittier Elementary School, where the kids have to walk outside and then into the main school just to use the bathroom.

Dennis: Plus, we'll see a new addition to Timberline High School with new science labs and special ed rooms, and we'll have an addition to our professional technical center, allowing us to offer HVAC, plumbing and electrical programs—some of the first in the state. That should be open in July of next year.

I'm presuming you have great things to say about all your teachers, but how do you identify someone with those extraordinary skills not found on any resume?

Dennis: It's judgment—having that innate ability to see beyond whatever crisis may be in front of them at any time. You have a kid that's going crazy in the classroom [and] and, yes, you have to address the behavior, but it's a lot harder to get down into the weeds and perhaps learn that the kid's dad just went to prison. It's not easy.

Coberly: For a first-year teacher, no matter what preparation you may have, you don't know how tough that job is until you get in there. Teachers are my heroes.

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