Will a leadership schism hurt West Ada schools?

Russell “Russ” Joki, a new trustee on the West Ada school board, seemed eager to get to the part of Tuesday night’s meeting where he could share his vision of education with an audience of about 30 and those who voted for him.

He asked the five-member board to table several agenda items, including reports on how parents and staff feel about the district, to leave time to discuss what he said were other important matters, such as a school safety policy. He also wanted time for himself and Julie Madsen, the other newly elected trustee, to introduce themselves to the community. It was, after all, their first meeting since their election May 19.

When they got their moment, Joki and Madsen challenged the previous West Ada School District Board of Trustees’ 3-2 vote last month to extend longtime Superintendent Linda Clark’s $143,000-a-year contract, which still had two years to go, by a third year.

As Clark listened, Joki suggested that the board might try to reverse that decision.

He questioned whether the superintendent had been evaluated annually, as required by Idaho law. Clark replied that she had.

He scolded Clark for speaking out in news reports that many Idaho districts were giving all of their teachers the same evaluation grade as part of the new statewide compensation plan. She called the practice “unconscionable.” The pay plan is one of many reforms emerging from Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.

“What other districts do is their business,” Joki told Clark. “What we do is our business. We should be mindful of not getting into the business of characterizing the work of other trustees and superintendents as being good or bad.”

Late in the meeting, the board went into executive session to discuss a personnel matter. Clark usually joins those closed sessions. The board barred her from this one.

Tuesday’s meeting signals the possibility of a new era of friction between the board of Idaho’s biggest school district and its superintendent. That worries educators and ultimately could affect students.

“Patrons begin to question what is happening with the board when they see this dissension,” said Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Board Association. “Anytime there is dissension among a board it ... goes down to the staff and, we believe, ultimately impacts student achievement.”

The big questions are: Why is this happening, and why now?

Clark was named superintendent of the then-Meridian School District in 2004, when it had about 26,000 students. She has overseen explosive growth. The district now has about 37,000 students. She did it without the steady stream of additional property tax dollars the neighboring Boise School District receives using taxing authority that predates statehood.

Clark, 67, is respected around the state and has the ear of education policymakers, who asked her to take charge of a committee on teacher licensure that was part of Otter’s package.

In the May 19 election, Joki, then 69 and a former Oregon superintendent, defeated Louis Pihfer, a onetime West Ada trustee, and two other candidates. Joki campaigned on the need for more parental involvement and an easier-to-understand strategic plan.

Joki was hired as superintendent of the Tigard-Tualatin School District southwest of Portland in 1985 after five years as superintendent of Nampa School District. He resigned as Tigard’s superintendent in 2000 while facing an allegation of sexual harassment. He was publicly reprimanded in 2003 by Oregon’s teacher standards commission for his handling of a teacher and volunteer coach who gave alcohol to students in 1999.

Joki acknowledged both incidents to the Statesman in May. He said then that he is a changed person and a Christian.

Madsen is a physician and the parent of a child at Galileo STEM Academy in Eagle. During the campaign, she said the district’s strategic plan had “completely failed” to address growth in some areas until it reached crisis levels. She said the district needed to communicate its financial needs more effectively to taxpayers.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Joki said the election is starting a new era for the board. He referred to a new majority on the board, though he did not define it. He said he would have joined incumbents Carol Sayles and Tina Dean in their June vote to oppose Clark’s contract extension. The decision should have been left for the incoming board, he said.

“I don’t like 11th-hour decisions” Joki said. “I think they are unnecessary and divisive.”

Madsen laid out several concerns. She said she wants district accountability, and said the district needs to communicate more with teachers and parents. “I have had a number of people tell me they had no idea how to effectively communicate with the the board,” she said.

But Madsen differed markedly with Joki in at least one way: There wasn’t a hint of a rift between her and Clark at the meeting. Madsen said her concern about the previous board’s extension of Clark’s contract was not about Clark’s performance but about the need for boards to be more accountable.

Dean, who was named chairman at the organizational portion of Tuesday’s meeting, defended her fellow trustees to the Statesman.

“My personal opinion is that as elected officials the trustees had a right” to speak out, Dean said.

It was admittedly an unusual moment, she said, as Joki and Madsen were presenting themselves to the community for the first time since the election. “I don’t expect that to be regular board behavior,” she said.

But Dean declined to say more about the board or the effect of the rift that appeared to develop. She said she would not discuss matters that were not on the board’s written agenda.

Trustee Carol Sayles could not be reached for comment.

The Statesman tried to reach Madsen and Joki to expand upon their concerns and what they want to do. Neither of them returned phone calls .

So is Tuesday’s meeting a sign that Clark might be in trouble with the board?

Mike Vuittonet, an appraiser who was chairman of the previous board, isn’t sure. Re-elected in May, he is the only current board member who voted to extend Clark’s contract.

“That story will unfold,” he said. “I hope that she is not in trouble. I don’t know what she would be in trouble for.”

Since the meeting, Clark said she has received several phone calls, with some saying they are embarrassed for the district.

“We have enjoyed a lot of community support and patron support,” Clark said. “And all of this can have an impact on that and on staff morale and everything.”

Changing Clark’s contract

For trustees to change Clark’s contract would be an uphill battle.

Like many superintendents in Idaho, Clark has a three-year rolling contract. Each year, the superintendent will go before trustees for an evaluation with two years left on a deal. If the board is satisfied with the superintendent’s work, it may grant a one-year extension.

“We want stability for the district,” Vuittonet said.

Anne Ritter, a four-term incumbent whom Madsen defeated, said the previous board was the right one to make the decision, because it was evaluating Clark on her previous year’s work, while those trustees were on the board. “We were in the best position to make a fair and thorough evaluation of her performance,” Ritter said.

The third yes vote came from Janet Calinsky, who decided not to seek re-election.

To undo Clark’s contract now, the board would have to show either that last month’s meeting lacked proper public notice or that the board conducted an illegal vote, said Echeverria. “My guess is neither one of those cases occurred.” she said.