Loyalty Trumps Competence


The phrase “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” has entered the public lexicon as shorthand for President Bush’s leadership style. Time and time again Bush has rewarded ideological loyalty in the face of obvious incompetence.

Governor Otter appears to be operating on the same standard. A headline in the Idaho Statesman reads: “Otter sticks by aide who left State Board short- Karen McGee is ‘doing a great job’ as a H&W liaison, and she isn’t working with finances, says the governor’s spokesman.”

You may recall that McGee made headlines just a week ago when it became known that she was responsible for a decision that violated Idaho accounting standards and contributed to the agency’s millions of dollars of debt. According to John Miller of the Associated Press:

A review of hundreds of e-mails related to the board’s budget crisis shows that last July, Karen McGee authorized a payment to the state’s public school testing company for services in fiscal 2007, even though the money had been set aside by Idaho lawmakers for use solely in 2008.

McGee acknowledged the error Friday and said she confused money earmarked for 2008 for money that could be used for 2007.McGee has been around the State Board for almost a decade in several capacities. She was an appointed member for eight years before joining Otter as his education adviser.

She left that job in May to become the board’s interim director. While she worked for the State Board, Otter, who campaigned for government accountability, sharply criticized the agency for its financial problems.In September, McGee resigned as executive director and asked to go back to work as an adviser in Otter’s office, where she still works.No mention was made at the time of her resignation about the payment. McGee said she did not leave the State Board because of Otter’s frustration over how the agency handled its money.

On Nov. 14, Otter budget chief Wayne Hammon wrote an internal memo to Otter, saying that McGee’s decision saddled her agency with a $1.4 million deficit.”This large payment made early in the fiscal year set them on a road of no return,” Hammon told the governor.That overspending forced the State Board to cancel the ninth-grade Idaho Standards Achievement Test in early December.

The crisis over the tests began in December 2006, when then-State Board Director Dwight Johnson decided to continue assessments for both second- and ninth-graders in a new ISAT testing contract with Data Recognition Corp.Tests in third through eighth grades and 10th-grade tests were required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but the other two were not.”The federal grant did not cover all of the costs from the second- and ninth-grade tests,” Johnson said. “So if we wanted to continue the tests, we needed state resources.”

In May, Johnson resigned just as the budget crisis was brewing. That’s when McGee was named interim director.Two months later, in July, McGee approved the payment for bills from 2007 with her agency’s 2008 appropriation.

So, back to the present. Did Otter, who campaigned for government accountability, hold McGee accountable? Of course not:

Gov. Butch Otter is standing by an aide who helped plunge the State Board of Education into more than $1 million in debt while she served as the agency’s executive director. A spokesman for Otter, who campaigned on a theme of fiscal responsibility in government, says the governor thinks Karen McGee is an asset to his team.

McGee served on the State Board for eight years, then joined Otter’s staff as his education and health and welfare adviser. Last May, she left to be executive director of the State Board. After just a few months, though, she resigned from the State Board job and rejoined the governor’s office in September. She is now Otter’s liaison to the Department of Health and Welfare and the Office of Drug Policy.

McGee is not working with budgets or finances, said Mark Warbis, Otter’s communication’s director. “She’s doing a great job with health and welfare,” he said. McGee earned $108,000 a year in her work as the State Board’s executive director. She is making $59,987 in the governor’s office. As a State Board member, she was reimbursed for expenses and earned up to $50 per day on the days that the board met or that she attended meetings related to the agency.

State Board President Milford Terrell told lawmakers Monday that the board has balanced its budget and expanded an auditing committee’s role to look at expenditures within the board’s own office. But the deficit forced the board to cut ninth-grade testing and leave several jobs unfilled within the office. Near the end of McGee’s months as State Board director, Otter budget director Wayne Hammon sent a letter to the board citing agency financial problems and telling the board to review the work of its staff and “take whatever disciplinary actions (including removal) it believes are necessary.”

Rather than take budget director Hammon’s recommendation and remove McGee from his administration altogether, Otter retains her on his team. Why? One reasonable assumption is that McGee, like Tom Luna, shares Otter’s libertarian desire to do whatever is necessary to limit the impact of professional educators in Idaho.

While on the State Board, McGee was the driving force behind two policies that do just that- charter schools and the ABCTE alternate route to teacher certification (ABCTE certifies teachers based upon their having passed two standardized tests and is recognized in only four other states besides Idaho).

In fact, as the following exchange that occurred during her reconfirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee in 2005 shows, she was the one who first introduced the ABCTE program to the State Board:

Senator Gannon- I understand that you are a big proponent of ABCTE, is that correct?

Ms. McGee- I was a big proponent of an alternative certification. I learned about ABCTE in Washington DC and brought that idea back to the board.

Senator Gannon- Does it give you any concern that teachers are not required to complete any classroom experience?

Ms. McGee- I am not concerned because of the mentoring and because the superintendent has the right to hire them or not. We have over 300 teachers who are teaching that aren’t certified but doing a great job, ABCTE is giving them the opportunity to go into the classroom.

Senator Gannon- Would you support legislation that would require them to have classroom experience for ABCTE?

Ms. McGee- At this point I would like to see any case for that. Research says that mentoring is a valuable tool for new teachers. The state board is big on accountability.

Senator Gannon- When you speak of mentoring are you referring to the mentoring of ABCTE which costs $200. Do you think they have much of mentoring program for $200.

Ms. McGee- I think through accountability we will be able to tell.

Well, the jury has been in on the ABCTE for quite some time and it certainly hasn’t proved to be accountable. It is corrupt, ineffectual and (except in Idaho) inconsequential. Whereas the rest of the country has realized that ABCTE is a fraud, Governor Otter continues to be a supporter and rewards McGee for her ideological loyalty.


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