Tension between the new West Ada school board and Superintendent Linda Clark has widened into the community.
Folks are choosing sides. One side thinks Clark is in the cross hairs of a board determined to rid itself of a superintendent who has guided the district for 11 years. The other thinks trustees are finally challenging Clark, not rolling over and rubber-stamping administration policies.
A once-hairline crack in the community split open at a school board meeting Tuesday, when the board voided a one-year extension of Clark’s contract, approved in June by the previous board.
Tuesday’s vote brought criticism from some people who said the board had other options. It also brought support from people who said the trustees were following the law by nullifying a contract extension approved in violation of Idaho’s open meeting law.
The next day, two former leaders of the district launched a campaign to recall the four trustees who voided the contract extension. If they secure enough signatures, the recall would go on the March ballot.
This drama is unfolding as West Ada residents prepare to go to the polls on Nov. 3 to decide whether to renew a $14 million-a-year levy for two years to pay for teachers and school days. On that issue, at least, the board and Clark are united in support.
What is the fight about?
Spending, and the taxes that support it, underlie the new board majority’s emphasis on accountability. The two new trustees, Julie Madsen and Russell “Russ” Joki, were elected in May after promising to scrutinize spending and bring more financial accountability to the state’s largest school district, which has 37,000 students and a $196 million annual budget.
Their election also reflected sentiment in some circles that Clark had become too powerful and the board too accommodating.
Madsen and Joki succeeded two board members who had voted in June — after the election but just before Madsen and Joki took office — to extend Clark’s two-year contract by a third year. The June vote was 3-2. At the first meeting of the new board in July, Madsen and Joki said the old board should have left the extension to the new board. That brought the number of opponents to four. Only holdover Mike Vuittonet remained to support the extension.
Clark was in trouble.
What happened next?
Joki vowed to revisit the contract extension and to seek a way to overturn it.
Over the next several weeks, the board took issue with a number of Clark’s decisions. It rejected her attempt to fill a testing director’s job, saying the district needed to watch its resources carefully. Trustees raised questions about Gov. Butch Otter’s appointment of Clark to the State Board of Education in July. They wondered if her state service would take time the district needed.
When the new trustees attended a required training session Sept. 2, they learned about an Idaho law that gives trustees the power to revisit decisions made in meetings that violate the state open meeting law. Soon after, the board determined that Clark’s contract extension had been approved in a meeting whose agenda failed to alert the public that it would come up. Last week, they declared the contract extension void — the only choice, their attorney said, that could be made under the law. The vote still leaves Clark with two years on her contract, covering this school year and next.
Was the board right?
That depends on whom you ask.
Laurynda “Ryndy” Williams is a mother of four children who attended West Ada schools. She has volunteered and worked for the district in the past. At the bond election in March to raise money for three new schools, she got on the phone to encourage people to vote. “I have great personal admiration for Dr. Clark,” she said.
But Williams believes trustees made the right decision Tuesday. The board was following the law, she said. Had the previous board granted an extension to Clark in accordance with open meeting law, “it would have been fine,” she said.
Vuittonet said the meeting was properly conducted and the extension is valid. His was the only vote Tuesday to retain it.
Reid Olsen, a trustee from 2004 to 2014, said the previous board handled Clark’s contract the same way his board had handled superintendent contracts when he was a trustee.
West Ada Board Chair Tina Dean said the board’s decision was strictly about conforming to the law. “The only thing in front of the board was to follow the open meeting law,” she said.
If that’s so, how did this vote lead to a recall threat against the four trustees?
The new board’s initial criticism of Clark’s contract in July, and the occasional confrontations at board meetings, led some people — including some of Meridian’s most prominent leaders — to suspect that the board may want to get rid of Clark.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Meridian Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Anne Little Roberts and state Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, were among those who turned out to support the superintendent.
The Meridian Chamber has a strong relationship with the district, Roberts said, and “the face of that support is Linda Clark.”
The audience of more than 100 people grew increasingly impatient as trustees first met in an executive session for two hours, then emerged to vote publicly on the contract extension without letting the public weigh in.
That’s when Christine Donnell — the superintendent who preceded Clark, and who has an elementary school named for her — urged the audience to mount a recall campaign.
“This is a travesty,” Donnell said. “It is not good for our community.”
On Wednesday, Donnell and Olsen announced the creation of Concerned Citizens of West Ada School District for Trustee Recall.
Is the board really trying to get rid of Clark?
Madsen has said she doesn’t think so.
Williams, the parent, says, “They didn’t run to get rid of Dr. Clark. Some people on the outside are stirring the pot.”
Joki, who has leveled some of the sharpest criticism against Clark in early meetings, said it is up to Clark to decide if “she is willing to work with the new board.”
He added that he is concerned about how Clark’s departure might affect the district. “I do not want her to leave in a fashion that is not good for this district if she should leave,” he told the Idaho Statesman.
Board members Carol Sayles and Julie Madsen did not return calls seeking comment.
What does Clark say?
She won’t comment.
Others wonder why Clark is staying with a hostile board. She is 67 years old. Perhaps she hopes that the board will come around, or that she can reach an accommodation with the new members.
“This is extremely difficult for her, because she loves the district,” Donnell said. “This is really hurtful, and I think it is unfortunate.”
What would it take to recall the school board members?
Candidates are elected from zones within the West Ada School District. The same process must be followed in each zone.
A recall petition must first be approved by the county elections office. Recall supporters then have 75 days to gather signatures from registered voters in those zones.
The number of signatures collected must total at least half of the votes cast in the election. If enough signatures are verified in a zone, its trustee would be notified. The trustee would have five days to resign or face the recall election.
A trustee would be recalled if two things happen: a majority approves, and the number of recall votes is equal to or greater than the number of votes the trustee received in the last election.
How is all this unrest likely to affect the levy that voters will decide on Nov. 3?
People on both sides of the fight are worried about that. Donnell said infighting often leaves voters feeling queasy. “This is what a board will always try to avoid,” she said.
Voters have approved the levy for the past four years to make up for what the district lost to recessionary cuts in state appropriations. Each levy lasts two years.
Williams, the parent, says voters may close their wallets until they feel comfortable that district leaders have settled their differences. She worries the “public will just see one thing and not realize what has happened.”
A yes vote would simply continue levies that West Ada voters have passed since 2012. They have paid for about 40 teachers and nine instructional days the state no longer supports. If that money goes away, the district would have to make $14 million a year in cuts, Clark said. “It is essential to the financial health of the school district,” she said.
But the fear of losing the levy vote was no reason to avoid the contract issue the board faced, said Dean, the board chairwoman.
“I think it would be unethical to hide behind that,” she said.