Teachers and parents armed with protest signs lined north Main Street in Hailey late Monday afternoon, joining a statewide rally against education reform bills pending before the Legislature.
The gathering started small, with only a handful of people braving frigid weather at the 4 p.m. start of the rally, but the ranks swelled to an estimated 150 by 4:30 p.m. Teachers, parents and supporters lined both sides of Main Street just south of Albertsons grocery store, shouting greetings to acquaintances on the opposite side of the road and eliciting honking horns from passing motorists.
Jaywalking was rampant. Hailey police showed up and asked people to remain on the sidewalks.
The rally, organized by the Blaine County Education Association, the regional teacher's union, spread its message by taking advantage of rush-hour traffic and a larger-than-usual southbound flow of people leaving Blaine County at the end of the Presidents Day weekend.
Nearly everyone carried a sign, making statements such as "Honk for Education," "Class Size Matters" and "Save our Schools."
The mood was joyful, even festive. One attendee quipped that he hadn't had "this much fun at a demonstration since the Vietnam War."
Elkhorn resident Michelle Griffith joked that she brought her friend Gail Dwyer to the rally under false pretenses.
"I told her we were going to a cocktail party and brought her here instead," Griffith said.
Regardless of frivolity, the purpose of the rally was dead serious.
Tryntje Van Slyke, a Wood River Middle School teacher and president of the Blaine County Education Association, said the rally was being held in conjunction with a statewide protest against the so-called "Luna reform" bills introduced this year in the Legislature. She was referring to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and three bills that he's urging the Legislature to approve as a means of addressing deep cuts in state funding for education.
One, referred to as a "union-busting" bill, would restrict teacher organizations from bargaining for anything other than salaries and benefits. A second would implement a merit pay system linked to student achievement. The third, and the bill most upsetting to opponents, would cut state funding for teachers and devote the money instead to buying laptop computers for students for online coursework. A net effect would be fewer teachers and more students per class.
Van Slyke acknowledged that the Blaine County School District is in a better financial position to absorb state funding cuts than many school districts in Idaho, but said that's no reason for complacency.
"We're not rolling in bucks," she said. "We've got to be careful with what we have. This isn't just about us. It's about kids—that's why we're supporting everybody across the state."
Van Slyke said she was pleased with the number of people who showed up for the rally.
"We have a strong PTA and people really care about education," she said.
Griffith said she has children in the School District and is concerned that with the reforms the "level of education will deteriorate."
"The other thing is that the [Luna] plan was developed in secret," Griffith said. "Nobody else was consulted."
Dan Gralenski, another Wood River Middle School teacher, said the Legislature seems to have a vendetta against teachers.
"It's just like we're under the gun," he said. "I don't know what we did to make the legislators mad at us. We just want the legislators to listen to us. It seems that they're just going to do whatever they want."
Ketchum-area resident Lyman Drake said he was pleased with the large turnout.
"It's a local reflection of the frustration that people are feeling all over the country," Drake said. "It's very short-sighted of the Legislature. The Luna package is a short-sighted leap into the future."
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org