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OPINION: Critchfield sends message to school officials

| November 15, 2022 5:48 PM

You’d think that a candidate might want to take a short break after 18 months of campaigning and scoring a landslide victory on election night.

Not Debbie Critchfield, the resounding winner of the race for state superintendent of public instruction. The day after the election, she was on an airplane to the State School Board Association Conference in Coeur d’Alene to meet with school board members throughout the state, superintendents and business managers.

It wasn’t the most lavish victory celebration after getting almost 70 percent of the vote in her victory over Democrat Terry Gilbert. But Critchfield says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is where I need to be — with the people who are doing the work for their local communities,” Critchfield told me.

And it gave her an opportunity to send a message that the bureaucratic divisions between the Department of Education and the State Board of Education are coming to an end. Not surprisingly, she received a warm reception to her victory from a lot of familiar faces. Critchfield, who lives in Oakley, is a former board member with the Cassia school district and a former president of the State Board of Education. During her campaign, Critchfield got an earful of complaints and concerns from school officials.

“What I heard before the election and after, among other things, was there has been a divide between the Department of Education and State Board,” Critchfield said. “For districts, it has been challenging and frustrating to have two different messages, and often, two different interpretations on questions about laws and policy.”

Critchfield touts her strong working relationship with State Board President Kurt Liebich, so that’s at least one thing she won’t need to figure out in the transition to her new job.

Her visit to Coeur d’Alene, she says, is an example of what’s to come as state superintendent. She will be on the road a lot, talking and listening to educators throughout the state. But the road show will have to wait a bit. Her immediate priority is preparing for the legislative session, fine-tuning the budget and meeting with a slate of new legislative leaders and committee chairs.

“That’s what my December will look like,” Critchfield says. During the session, legislators — who complained about lack of access with outgoing Superintendent Sherri Ybarra during her eight years in office — will be seeing plenty of Critchfield in the committee rooms.

“During the legislative session, the superintendent needs to be the advocate for K-12, and that will be my primary focus,” she said. “I’m not outsourcing that to someone who works at the department, or hiring a special legislative liaison. That’s the job I was hired for.”

And this is a job that she has been preparing to land for more than 20 years, with her involvement in education. Living in Oakley, she also understands that some sharp educators can be found in the rural schools.

Ah, but give her at least a little time to reflect on those impressive election results. Getting almost 70 percent of the vote in a spirited campaign race is quite an accomplishment, even for a Republican in Idaho. Ybarra, by comparison, won her two races by thin margins.

“I think the work I put into it was reflected in the results,” Critchfield says.

There are personal adjustments that lie ahead — including here and her husband, Dave, getting a second home in Boise. “We’re excited about the venture,” she says.

As for the job itself, it appears she will be ready to go on Day One.

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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at