New problem for Nampa schools?

A revolving superintendency adds to the district's woes.

broberts@idahostatesman.comMay 16, 2013 

The day after Tom Michaelson's announcement that he's resigning as Nampa School District superintendent after just seven months, board members, candidates and parents offered plenty of ideas as to why he ran into problems:

• His largest proposed budget cut - 45 teachers, mostly through attrition, saving $2.5 million - splintered a board reluctant to take too many instructors out of the classroom.

• The superintendent didn't look hard enough to find other savings elsewhere before proposing to cut teachers' spots.

• Michaelson's often frank and no-nonsense style didn't sit well with some.

Trustees didn't stand behind the man they chose to battle the deficit they themselves failed to recognize in 2010-2011, said Brian McGourty, a former board member and candidate in the May 21 election.

"I saw a board that was unprepared to step up and make tough decisions," he said.

That could make finding the next permanent superintendent difficult, he said.

"Who is willing to step into the situation and deal with the issues that need to be dealt with, when in my opinion, we had the right person in place?" McGourty said.

Michaelson declined to be interviewed, but he is no stranger to tough financial problems, having righted districts in Californiabefore retiring to Idaho. He took on a passel of problems in Nampa when he came out of retirement seven months ago.

A $2.3 million deficit the district discovered last sumer swelled to $5.1 million by spring. Michaelson had to find a way to knock an additional $3 million out of next school year's spending to keep from enlarging the deficit.

Then the district's finance officer discovered another $1.2 million owed to the bond fund, which will be resolved as part of a $6.3 million loan.

Against these mounting costs, Michaelson got the board to agree to close Sunny Ridge Elementary School, a savings of $500,000. He proposed outsourcing janitor services, which barely won board approval a month ago.

He took on other cuts, before producing the big one: teacher reductions.

On Tuesday, the board seemed to have had enough. It accepted cutting 27 teachers through attrition - not filling positions being vacated this year. But members wouldn't buy Michaelson's plan to reduce music and physical education instructors and counselors in elementary schools - a plan devised in part by McGourty as he sat on the citizens financial panel the district assembled.

EXAMINING ALL OPTIONS

Bob Otten, a trustee and retired elementary school teacher in Nampa, led the push to keep the 18 music and PE jobs. He said he wasn't trying to avoid a tough decision, just doing due diligence.

Trimming those teachers could mean students wouldn't see instructors often enough - possibly just once every 10 days, Otten said.

The board voted 4-1 against cutting music teachers.

Clayton Trehal, Otten's opponent in the May 21 election, doesn't think the board avoided the pain of cuts by splitting up the teacher reduction plans.

"I thought they were doing their job," Trehal said.

Otten also won support for an immediate study of changing class schedules at Nampa high schools, a plan that might save $1.5 million.

McGourty says there isn't time to put such a plan in place before the next school year, when the new budget takes effect.

Otten said he was not a Michaelson fan.

"I am concerned how he addressed some of the things with staff," Otten said, "and that is all I am going to say."

The state's third-largest school district will soon have its third superintendent in less than year. Gary Larsen was there for nearly two decades until his resignation last summer following revelations about the shortfalls.

DIFFERING PERSONALITIES

Scott Kido, the board chairman who supported Michaelson, said Michaelson's direct style sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. Such concerns don't exist over the man trustees voted to be interim superintendent when Michaelson steps down May 30.

Pete Koehler, tapped as Michaelson's assistant superintendent a month ago, is respected in the district. He's been Nampa High School principal and the chief education officer over several schools for seven years.

Koehler declined to be interviewed for this story, but he brings one attribute that outsider Michaelson could not: He has a history in Nampa.

Koehler once was considered for the job Michaelson now holds, Kido said. And among parents, Koehler is considered dedicated and a strong backer of students.

When Kathi Bruderer had concerns over her daughter's cheerleading team at Nampa High, Keohler jumped in and solved things quickly, she said. "He listens and he cares," she said.

Otten, too, thinks Koehler is the right man. "He will follow along with what is going," Otten said.

Still, Trehal wishes the vote on teacher reductions and the dwindling support for Michaelson had not produced the late-night drama of Michaelson's resignation.

"It is just one more woe for the district," he said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408

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