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School districts may get to hire trustees' spouses

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Senate Education Committee voted Thursday to lift restrictions that bar school districts from hiring the spouses of board members.

Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, said the rule — which is meant to stave off nepotism — puts a hardship on Idaho's smaller rural school districts.

"One size doesn't fit all in Idaho, especially in education," he said.

Often, Gibbs said, the only people qualified to teach are forced to work as volunteers because of their relationship with one of the trustees.

In the North Gem School District, for example, a school board member's wife teaches drama for free because no one else is available to lead the program.

Gibbs' bill would let districts of 1,200 or fewer waive the stipulation against hiring trustees' spouses, as long as the job is advertised first.

A school would have to post the position for 60 days if an opening comes up during the summer, or 15 days during the school year. Districts could hire a trustee's wife or husband only if no other qualified applicant threw their name into the ring. They also would be required to advertise the position again each year.

"It's a concept that obviously doesn't work everywhere, but in rural Idaho it's a tool that my school boards have asked me to bring before you," Gibbs said, arguing such a waiver would let the state's smallest schools provide better education.

Karen Echeverria of Idaho School Boards Association said she believed the proposed legislation would fill a need.

"This is probably the most frequent question we get at the School Boards Association office," she told the committee.

But opponents of the measure argue there already are ways to deal with a teacher shortage that don't involve putting a trustee's spouse on the school payroll.

"Our responsibility as a state is to make sure we develop and retain the quality workforce our schools and our students need to be successful," said Idaho Education Association's Robin Nettinga.

Nettinga argued that even rural school have options. Currently employed teachers can earn another certification, or non-teachers can come into the school to instruct, as long as they secure a certification within three years.

In addition, students interested in a course that isn't offered in their district can learn through online classes, she said.

But Gibbs said staff already is stretched dangerously thin at small schools, and online work isn't enough to teach children and teenagers subjects like music or theater.

Committee members backed Gibbs. Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, said he saw similar problems when he represented Owyhee County.

"This is needed in a lot of small areas and small communities where teachers are already teaching more than one subject," Patrick said. "It gets to be overwhelming."

The bill, which cleared the House with a 59-5 vote last week, is now bound for debate on the Senate floor.

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