Rory Jones, a 1973 Borah High School graduate, has been on the Boise School Board for 23 years, serving the last decade as its president. He joined the board before he had kids, and just saw his first son graduate. Jones, whose mother, wife and two sisters have worked as teachers and whose late father ran the education school at the former Boise Junior College, said he always believed teachers were underpaid.
Jones is a partner at the Boise law firm Trout Jones Gledhill Fuhrman, P.A. He's been recruited to run for higher office but prefers the nonpartisan school board service. He says he probably has the wrong views on guns and the institutions of religion to move up on the Idaho political food chain.
"I've read way too much," Jones said.
Are you from Idaho?
I was from Cascade. But I've lived in Boise since I was 4 years old. My dad was with old Boise Junior College. He was supposed to be the first president of Boise State, but he was killed in a car wreck. 1964. Craters of the Moon, headed east to see his parents on summer vacation.
You've said you were inspired to become a lawyer by To Kill a Mockingbird. Have you had any watershed cases like that?
You know, I guess that's why it's fiction because there aren't too many cases where you get to have that kind of righteousness and that kind of philanthropy. He's just a very admirable character and he had great kids, and I'm very into kids and helping them grow and make good decisions on their own. That's the odd thing about being a lawyer. We don't get to advance our own causes because we have to get hired, we have to make a living. So they're always other people's causes.
How did you start on the school board?
I've always been interested in politics. I joined the law firm as a young lawyer. The legislature isn't really a good fit unless you are going to work alone. I was working a lot. I lived in the North End, which was the only place I could have gotten elected back then, and we had good legislators--there was no need to run against them.
What was the school board like then?
The first election was a huge election. There were 16 people running for two spots with one incumbent. I was 28 years old, but I was running as a new face but a proud graduate of the public schools.
I'm a believer that the public schools are the melting pot of America. Unlike our other Western cities, the public schools here are still the best choice. If you go to Denver or Seattle or Portland, there's huge economic and race-based flight from the public school system, and that hasn't happened in Boise because the public schools are at least as good as, or better than, the private school alternatives. And that's because we've stayed competitive. We've always looked at it as friendly competition, but if somebody comes along and does something on a private-school basis and does it well, we're going to match that in our district in order to compete.
How do you explain the high scores of Boise students?
We have tremendous faculty in our high schools that kids seek out. They build a niche, and they get rewarded by having good students come to them, and those students perform well. We've tried to stay open and flexible rather than closed.
Open enrollment is the opposite of how we did business when I first got on the board. Our goal was to keep kids out because Meridian district was famous for not passing levies. Our tax rate was much, much higher than the folks who lived in Meridian because the Boise people were always willing to support their schools, and Meridian folks were not. So we weren't going to let their kids in and sort of freeload off the superior education they could get in Boise. But now we recruit those kids.
Does the district compete with charters?
We have the best relationship in the state with our charter schools. I mean, we have Hidden Springs coming back into our school district after forming as a charter school, that's certainly unprecedented in Idaho and may be unprecedented anywhere in the country. Nampa district is losing huge numbers of kids to charter schools because they've not been able to compete with the start-ups. Anser [Charter School] is doing very well but there's only one of them, and that's the point ...
What's the relationship between Boise and the State Department of Education?
It's complicated. Our district has been the lighthouse district for the state of Idaho for a long time. We have some advantages in our levy rate that have allowed us to keep up. And we pay our teachers more than anyone in the state does, and that's not necessarily a popular thing for politicians, unless you're one of the few that is supported by teachers.
How can the state pay teachers more?
If they would allow districts to have a local-option tax, which we've never been able to do in the 23 years that I've been on the board ...
We work hard at having a good relationship with [State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom] Luna, but we didn't agree with him about pay for performance, which is a huge part of his political agenda, and we fought that vigorously, and I'm sure he didn't appreciate that.
Luna and President Barack Obama talk about many of the same education reforms. Do they mean the same thing about pay for performance and charters?
There are huge needs for education alternatives in failing urban school districts and that is the source of Obama's support for charter schools in some districts. And then there are politicians who use that support to springboard it into their own agenda, and that's not the same. To say that you should open some more charter schools in downtown Washington, D.C., to meet the needs of underperforming African-American students in failed public schools does not mean that we need more charter schools in Gooding, which is getting devastated by charter schools, or Nampa or certainly Boise.
And pay for performance ... Idaho has struggled--I think is a very fair verb--with the viability of its tests. And to still now be struggling, years after statewide testing became mandated, and using that as a springboard for labeling some teachers as good and some as bad, that's a joke.
Are you involved in other political realms?
You know, I've had way more credibility because I haven't gotten involved. I mean, I give a lot of money to Democrats, most of it I know is not going to work. But some of the local candidates I've been able to help.