Nampa teachers could be next budget casualties

The school district struggles for solvency under parents' and union's watchful eyes

broberts@idahostatesman.comMay 5, 2013 


    Early voting begins Monday and ends May 17. Voters must go to the Canyon County elections office between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m, at 1102 E. Chicago St. in Caldwell.

    On election day, voters go to their regular polling places. Candidates will be elected by voters from zones 3, 4 and 5. Winners serve four-year terms.

    Information: 454-7562; link to the election's website at

    Board meeting: Nampa School District meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Nampa High School little theater to discuss a loan of up to $6.5 million.


    School board trustees are supposed to provide a measure of accountability in school operations. Given Nampa School District's financial woes, we asked the seven candidates in the May 21 board election to answer several questions.

    "What is one specific thing you would do to improve the Board of Trustee's oversight of the district's budget and finances?"

    ZONE 3

    Robert Otten (incumbent), retired teacher: I would have the business manager meet with the board each month to inform the trustees of incoming revenue, expenses and any other financial items that may be of concern to the district. This will allow for questions and the board will be better informed about the district finances.

    Clayton Trehal, teacher outside Nampa School District: I would like to see regular public financial reports and would also recommend periodic reports directly from district financial officers to the school board. School districts are stewards of extremely large budgets and do work that is too important to miscount money and overshoot their budgets by as much as the Nampa School District did. We are supposed to be able to trust our school district.

    ZONE 4

    Brian J. McGourty, former trustee; owner, Eyecare Associates of Nampa: I bring a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of public education funding than the existing board. That allows me to review past, current and proposed budgets while asking the critical questions to ensure the accountability of the district administrative leadership. A board is only as good as the information it receives and the information it receives often is only as good as the questions it asks. I am not afraid to ask tough questions.

    Kimiko Rost, structural engineer: I will ask the tough questions and think out of the box to ensure every line item is researched thoroughly.

    Cate Tedeski, small business owner: I plan to look for additional sources of income, such as grants. I will also look for ways to cut from the top first. Big salaries are paid to the administration, while the superintendent callously recommends to the board to make cuts to our hard-working teachers and staff. This takes from our children. It hurts our local economy. These are our friends and neighbors. They have families and mortgages to pay.

    ZONE 5

    Dale Wheeler (incumbent), retired from Union Pacific Railroad: Get more detailed information on specific items in the budget process and financial reports.

    Mike Fuller, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seminary instructor: The current board has done a great job by hiring two new CPAs and forming a new independent auditing committee of highly qualified community volunteers. The only thing I would suggest is that they increase the level of training for the board members. I am impressed with the changes that the new finance officer Michelle Yankovich has made to overhaul the financial reporting system.


    One option is off the table.

    Nampa School District is backing away from the idea of outsourcing the district's 151 nutrition services workers.

    School officials said late Friday the move would not save the district any money.


    Bill covers education for the Statesman. His focus is on how district and state policies shape what happens in the classroom.

You can hear the frustration in Alishia Jonas' voice as she talks about the cuts that never seem to end in cash-strapped Nampa School District.

She's seen an elementary school ordered closed for next year and some busing curtailed. She's shelling out more than ever for supplies at the elementary school three of her kids attend.

"I don't feel right now this is being handled effectively," said Jonas, a mother of four students enrolled in Nampa schools.

The district first discovered a $2.3 million deficit last summer that has ballooned to $5 million. And the district needs to make another estimated $3 million in cuts to avoid a deficit next school year.

School officials have said they want to keep the reductions as far from the classroom as possible. But as the district faces a June 30 deadline to produce a balanced budget, eliminating teachers is almost certainly going to play a role in leveling out the bottom line for Idaho's third-largest school district.

Tom Michaelson was hired as superintendent of the 15,200-student district late last year to clean up the district's financial mess. He has estimated that up to 50 of Nampa's approximately 800 teachers will be gone after this year. Potential savings: $2 million or more.

Not so fast, said Jonas. "Cutting that is an absolutely ridiculous idea," she said.

Nampa and Idaho are trying to educate future leaders and push students to go to college. "If we cut our teachers, how can we ask (students) to go on?" she wonders.


Trimming the district's teaching force would be the latest in a string of painful chopping.

As Nampa's money troubles mounted - from double counting revenue, under-budgeting expenses and miscalculating the number of students on which much of the district's state funding is based - Nampa Superintendent Gary Larsen resigned in September.

Because it spent more money that it had, Nampa School District did not go through gut-wrenching cuts other districts endured during the recession. Meridian schools, for example, took $40 million out of its budget and reduced its teaching staff to 127 below the more than 1,800 alloted by the state. Meridian cut bus routes and eliminated mid-day kindergarten busing.

Michaelson, a veteran of repairing two financially troubled central California districts, took the Nampa job and went to work on a plan to eradicate the district's money woes.

In March, voters agreed to a one-year, $4.3 million levy to ease the crunch.

Days later, the board of trustees approved closing Sunny Ridge Elementary, which will save the district $500,000. The district also is outsourcing janitorial work - a savings of $305,000.

Michaelson thinks the district has hit the bottom of its financial hole. But more cuts and a line of credit of up to $6.5 million are necessary for stability and cash flow, he said. The loan must be repaid from the school's state funds within a year.

And nothing the district has done so far has addressed the matter of restoring the district's reserve fund, which was stripped to zero.

Trustees are expected to take that up for the 2014-15 school year. The amount of the reserve fund, which would help the district with unanticipated expenses, has not been determined. The recommendation of an independent auditor was $750,000 to $1 million over the next four years. But putting aside that much could require even more reductions elsewhere.

Fixing its money problems could take 18 to 24 months, Michaelson said. It's become nearly the sole focus of Michaelson and the board.

"We have an obligation and priority of establishing ways that we can stabilize fiscal responsibility," he said.


Salaries and benefits account for 84 percent of the district's annual budget, so it seems nearly impossible that the district could keep cutting and not cut teachers.

At first, the district focused on cutting "the fat," Michaelson said.

"Pretty soon," he said, "if you still have a deficit, then you have to start looking at other parts of the organization."

Between 60 and 80 teachers could be leaving the district at the end of the year through retirement and natural attrition. But teachers in core classes such as English and math would likely have to be replaced if they retired or left the district.

A new Idaho law says the district can consider teacher seniority in reducing its instructor force, but that can't be the only consideration. The law doesn't set out a list of considerations.

Michaelson said the priority in trimming teachers will be to preserve the basic curriculum and prepare students to graduate from high school.

He's not sure which classes could be affected, but small-enrollment high school elective classes could be targets.

Overall class sizes could be a casualty of the cost-cutting, he said, although the goal would be to keep lower primary grades as small as possible, Michaelson said. Average class sizes in first through third grades already are one to three students over the state recommendation.

Bigger classes are a worry to the teachers union, which has long sought fewer students per teacher to ensure students' needs are met.

"What I don't want to see happen is larger class sizes." said Robin Nettinga, executive director of the Idaho Education Association.

Mandy Simpson, president of the teachers union in Nampa, did not respond to a Statesman request for comment.


Nampa's money is unfolding in a shifting financial arena.

School district officials continually get new information - often about falling revenue - that affects plans. Nampa could see its federal Medicaid recovery for special education expenses cut in half. The federal budget sequester could knock another $180,000 from disadvantaged and special needs programs. Nampa still doesn't know how much state money it will get for next year, since those numbers typically don't come out until late in the school year. All of these issues will shape financial decisions.

The district is facing a 12 percent increase in health insurance costs, which next school year will cost $1 million.

Rising insurance costs is one of the reasons the district outsourced custodial service. The district's 83-employee custodial staff is expected to work for a privately owned company that does offer benefits, but at less than what the district pays.

As Jonas, the mom with four kids in Nampa schools, looks at the array of decisions the district faces, she finds little comfort. She spends evenings helping her kids do homework and doing her own as a College of Western Idaho student majoring in communications. As the district whittles away at its budget problems, she thinks parents and staff are being asked to pay for the budgeters' errors.

She doesn't know what decisions should be made, she said, but she doesn't want them to affect teachers and classrooms.

"Cuts they are making don't make sense," she said.


By the time Nampa trustees get ready to vote on a school budget for next year, three of five members of the board that made many of the decisions to reduce spending could be gone.

Three seats are up for election on May 21. All seven candidates talk about the need for leadership and how the district must face coming austerity.


The race pits incumbent Bob Otten, a former teacher, against Clayton Trehal, a teacher at Idaho Connects Online School based in Boise.

"As cuts are being made, it will be critically important to have people who understand education helping to make the difficult decisions ahead," said Trehal.

Otten said the board needs to scrutinize the district's books more carefully.

Otten voted against the district's plan to outsource janitors and Trehal said he agrees, calling the decision a failure of leadership. The district should have done a better job looking for ways to keep everyone on board, Trehal said.


Three candidates, including former school board chairman Brian J. McGourty, seeking the seat left open by Chairman Scott Kido's decision not to seek re-election.

McGourty said the trustees need to be asking tougher questions about the district fiscal health.

Cate Tedeski, a small business owner, said the board's response to financial problems has been "to make pay cuts to the folks who show up every day to serve our children."

Kimiko Rost, a Nampa parent and structural engineer, said she is running to provide the best education for students without overburdening the taxpayer.


Dale Wheeler, a 12-year board veteran, is challenged by Mike Fuller, an instructor for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seminary next to Kuna High School. Wheeler was on the board when district staff made the errors that led to the deficit.

"The figures we were given at the board meeting looked OK," Wheeler said. He did not foresee the problems that crippled the district financially were happening: "Maybe a few times in the back of your mind, you wonder if it all was well and good," he said.

As the problem became clear, Wheeler said, he did some investigating before making some of the difficult decisions. When the board considered what to do with custodians, Wheeler said, he read the proposal from the company and talked to company officials, expressing "how concerned I was about the employees. I wanted to make sure they had some kind of retirement."

He eventually voted to outsource the custodians; at least one dissenting board member in the 3-2 vote said the district had not done enough to find other resources and was too quick to dump employees.

Fuller doesn't think the district went far enough to try to save the custodians' jobs. He would have offered to keep them as district employees - with a 15 percent to 20 percent pay cut.

Fuller and Wheeler say they respect each other. Fuller said the board has little responsibility for the financial problems the district faces. If elected, Fuller said, he would ask plenty of questions and try to get more information to the community before decisions are made.

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