Tom Michaelson has the look and demeanor of a surgeon. That is apropos because he has developed a specialty lately of trying to save critically ill school districts.
Since November the wobbly and ailing Nampa School District has been his sole patient. The interim superintendent - he drops the "interim" part sometimes - estimates that it could take until the end of 2014 to restore stability after the district began facing what amounts to an $8 million shortfall problem, which is part deficit and part spending projection. Working with the staff, board and community, he already has seen progress. But there is so much more to consider.
"After 30 years of superintendency," he took this case on because he said he detected a passionate community heartbeat and a strong desire to survive the eradication of a nasty $5.2 million deficit tumor that could metastasize into future years if new spending is not brought in line with revenues.
Nampa voters in March agreed to a $4.3 million levy and sold some property to address the deficit. But the spending patterns that created it were still in play when Michaelson came on board. Those spending levels - combined with reduced revenue - are going to produce a new deficit of $2.9 million if things don't change.
Michaelson feels he and the board members and new staff assembled have made "significant progress," but looking for reductions in spending in a school district is like performing delicate surgery. You try your best to avoid the vitals of educating the district's 15,200 students.
Throughout all these moves and to its credit, the district has been mostly a model patient. It has owned up to the reasons for its fiscal problems. The administrators and staff responsible for oversight are gone - replaced by Michaelson and a new finance watchdog who has a CPA. An auditing firm is providing added transparency.
"We have had tremendous support from our community. They supported in passing a bond that would significantly help the long-term effects of this. We've been able to sell some property. With those two issues dealt with we were coming up almost to ground level," Michaelson said.
But what is the lesson for Nampa, for other districts, for any government organization? As nine candidates vie for three open positions on the five-member Nampa School Board election on May 21, what policies should they consider to keep this from happening again?
1) Attrition in the finance department (six positions) before his arrival resulted in less oversight of revenues and spending. Accounting mistakes were made, including double counting of federal and state funding the district was anticipating.
2) It often is the default of elected board members, usually well-meaning volunteers, to accept staff financial reports without adequate scrutiny. Confidence in staff increases over time but giving the benefit of the doubt too readily can lead to troubles.
Scott Kido, a Nampa dentist and outgoing board chairman who is not seeking re-election, said he recalls poring over district financial information and sometimes wondering, How come were not having to make more cuts? When the gravity of the situation was realized and the amount of cuts on the table articulated after Michaelsons arrival, Kido said he thought, We dont have a choice between bad and good. We have a choice between bad and horrible. We just have to do it.
3) Formulas for forecasting enrollment were faulty and the spending based on overly optimistic projections was devastating. Solvent school districts correctly anticipate the ebb and flow of funding and shortages and make adjustments along the way. It is easier to spread the pain little by little, Michaelson said, than to face it all at once in a crisis.
Schools represent the main fabric of a community, Michaelson said. Weve got some work to do in rebuilding some trust.
There is much to be done to restore Nampa schools to solvency. Painful procedures remain, which will be criticized and challenged. But the district, staff, the community, and the present and incoming board members are fortunate to have Michaelson at the helm, and we hope he continues to receive their maximum support.
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