Nampa schools' slow climb out of a financial hole

Money problems in Nampa schools are better, but some effects linger

broberts@idahostatesman.comDecember 30, 2013 

  • PUBLIC CAN SOUND OFF ON NAMPA SCHOOLS LEVY

    Nampa School District residents will get a chance to tell trustees their ideas on a proposed levy to help pay for school operations.

    A public meeting is tentatively set for 7 p.m. Jan. 9 at 619 S. Canyon St.

    Nampa school officials are working their way out of a $5.3 million deficit, which should be repaid this school year.

    They say they need a levy to help restore 10 of the 46 teacher positions that were cut to balance the budget. District officials also want to cut the 14 days of furlough in half, with an emphasis on restoring five days of instruction time.

    Trustees agreed earlier this month to hold a levy election but have not set an amount or a date.

    At a board meeting on Dec. 17, education stakeholder groups, including the Nampa Education Association, parents groups and members of the district’s superintendent search committee, urged the board to seek a levy, even if it means increasing the property tax rate for homeowners.

    Superintendent Pete Koehler has suggested a $2.8 million levy that would include setting aside $700,000 for the district’s reserve fund, improving district computer equipment and purchasing materials for a curriculum based on Idaho Core Standards.

    A $1.6 million levy for school operations expires in June.

When Nampa School District ordered Sunny Ridge Elementary shuttered in a cost-cutting move last fall, the district didn’t lose one school. It lost two.

Parents at nearby Lake Ridge Elementary opened their arms to Sunny Ridge students and parents as most moved to the new school. But then, Lake Ridge parents discovered that most of the Sunny Ridge teachers were coming, too. And several of the teachers at Lake Ridge were being sent elsewhere.

“We lost our music teacher, our computer teacher and our P.E. teacher,” said Becky Cantrell, a Lake Ridge parent and PTA treasurer. “We felt like we were being bulldozed.”

The bumpy Sunny Ridge-Lake Ridge merger is just one example of the lingering effects still being felt from the financial mistakes that sucked dollars out of the Nampa School District in 2012 and 2013 and created a $5.3 million deficit. The district took various measures to erase that deficit. But the district’s financial woes meant the district also had to pare about $3 million out of its operations budget for the 2013-2014 school year to bring its expenses in line with its revenues.

For much of 2013, the district slogged through murky money waters, hitting unexpected snags that made it seem as if the district’s financial problems were a bottomless pit.

A deficit once pegged at a little more than $2 million mushroomed to more than $5 million. The district learned last summer that $1.2 million had been pulled out of an account to repay school bonds between 2004 and 2008 and spent instead on district operations.

Staff started leaving the district. Gary Larsen, the superintendent when the financial mistakes were made, resigned in August 2012. Interim Superintendent Tom Michaelson came on board but met board resistance and resigned in May 2013.

“It was brutally depressing,” said Pete Koehler, the interim superintendent who replaced Michaelson. The district is conducting a search for a permanent superintendent; Koehler is not a candidate.

GETTING CONTROL OF THE MONEY

In the 17 months since the financial problems were discovered in 2012, Nampa School District has made progress:

- Voters approved a $4.3 million levy to help the district fill much of the financial hole. That levy expires this school year.

- Sale of a parcel of land near Nampa High School to Capital Educators Credit Union for $623,000 helped with the deficit.

“(The deficit) will be paid off the middle of this summer,” Koehler said.

District administrators have tightened internal budget controls. No money gets paid out unless it is pegged to a specific part of the budget. Board members must authorize any budget amendment in excess of $50,000.

Two board members and a certified public accountant volunteer serve on an audit committee that goes over expenses quarterly.

Koehler hopes those changes, and his assurance that the budget bungling is history, will help restore voter confidence as the district prepares to ask for a new supplemental levy to help finance school operations.

A levy, Koehler insists, won’t go to bail the district out of its past money problems. The money will go to help the schools from here on.

“I think we are asking for investment in kids,” Koehler said.

DUAL-LANGUAGE SCHOOL HIT BY CUTS

While the district’s books show improvement, repercussions from budget problems and state cuts in education dollars continue.

At New Horizons Elementary, a Spanish and English school southeast of Nampa, enrollment fell from 520 to 377 this year after districtwide busing to the school was chopped to save money.

The enrollment — half Spanish-speaking students, half English-speaking, considered optimal for a dual-language school — has changed. It is now at about 28 percent Spanish speakers, said Chris Heath, New Horizons’ PTA vice president.

Many of those who left the school didn’t have the means or the scheduling flexibility to get their children from home to New Horizons, he said.

Parents are working to improve school numbers. But early efforts don’t look promising. They had hoped to hire private transportation to get the kids to the school, but that’s a financial burden for some parents, Heath said.

Nampa’s districtwide teaching force was reduced by 46 instructors, and that was achieved through attrition. But it left English and science classes at the high schools with 42 to 45 students each. Some kindergarten classes have around 25 students — well above the district’s goal of 20.

Such crowded classrooms put New Horizons busing concerns far down the priority list.

“Do I hire teachers or say ‘No, I am going to pay $53,000 for each bus route’?” Koehler asked.

RESOLVING ISSUES

At Lake Ridge, with more than 600 students from the combined two schools, problems are slowly working themselves out.

Steve LaBau, the principal who came from Sunny Ridge, said he had only a few days to make hiring decisions. He interviewed staffs from both schools; some wanted to leave Lake Ridge. “I took the people I thought were best-qualified,” he said.

Some of the traditions at Lake Ridge are gone. That includes Morning Movement, a popular daily meeting where students gathered and danced and got their wiggles out before school. It wasn’t possible once enrollment more than doubled from 250.

But the PTAs merged; Julie Stratton, a former Sunny Ridge parent, was elected president. “We all agreed our focus should be on family events,” Stratton said.

A recent Breakfast with Santa event brought out about 250 people on a snowy, cold Saturday.

Stratton, Cantrell and Heath have all felt the sting of the district’s determination to shore up its finances. But all say they support a new levy for the district.

“I have three kids in this school district,” Cantrell said. “I have a vested interest in it doing well and my kids having the supplies they need.”

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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