The next West Ada School District superintendent probably won’t see it in the job description, but a big part of their duties will be helping heal the state’s largest district, which has been torn apart by discord over the past five months.
Tina Dean, school board chair, acknowledges that the community and staff have been affected. She says the “disillusionment” has “trickled” down to students as well. District residents have chosen sides over the handling of former Superintendent Linda Clark’s contract and her departure. And two recall efforts threaten to sweep all five board members out of office.
Dean said she wasn’t ready to publicly discuss how she wants the new superintendent to move past the controversies. But as the board looks for a superintendent for the first time in 11 years, she said, it must be “honest with the applicants and make sure they know exactly what is going on and that they have the tools and capability to handle that.”
At the same time, parents and taxpayers say the board must choose a superintendent who will drive student achievement and make communication with teachers and families a top priority.
“If we see (leadership from administrators at) school events, we see, as parents, they are involved with students and their parents,” said Miki Wilmonen, who has two students in West Ada schools.
Wilmonen was among about a dozen people who addressed board members Monday night at one of two listening sessions the board held for residents. The board also sent a survey to staff and 26,000 email accounts to gauge what residents and employees are looking for in a new superintendent.
WHAT TRIGGERED THE SEARCH?
Clark resigned in October over what she called a “witch hunt” and then was terminated by the board, which said it never accepted her resignation, in November.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how the upheaval will affect the board’s ability to attract good applicants.
Trustee Russell Joki expects little impact. West Ada is a district with a good reputation, he said: “It is an opportunity for qualified candidates.”
Trustee Julie Madsen doesn’t see the threat of recall as an impediment to finding strong candidates. “This is a job for someone who has great confidence in their ability to work with whoever their board members (happen) to be,” she said. “Many of these people who will be interested have large fluctuations in who their board members are.”
David Wynkoop, a Meridian attorney who was a West Ada trustee and a member of the Ada County Highway District board, isn’t so sure. “Who wants to enter into that situation and risk their own career?” he said.
Given the “the baggage and the history,” the board might want to hire someone from within who understands the situation and the challenge.
“If they are from the outside, you want to vet them very carefully,” he said.
A candidate might take a long, hard look at West Ada, said Karen Echeverria, Idaho School Boards Association executive director.
“They may have a job somewhere, with no guarantee they are going to have a job after March,” the month for a possible recall vote, Echeverria said..
Clark’s contract and pay were sore points with several board members. Now the board will have a chance to set its own course for how to compensate a new superintendent.
Clark, who ran the district of 36,000 students, made $143,000 plus benefits. Her cash compensation was about $20,000 less than what the superintendent in Boise makes — the state’s second-largest district. Both Joki and Madsen think they have the resources to pay a new superintendent more, but in a paycheck and not with benefits such as a retirement bonus and a car, things Clark received.
“I would personally have no problem paying the superintendent more than the Boise superintendent in base pay,” Joki said. “That doesn’t trouble me at all.”
Clark also had a three-year rolling contract. At the end of each year, when the superintendent had two years left on her contract, the board would review her performance and add a year. That is standard practice throughout Idaho, Echeverria said.
Madsen balks at a three-year contract. She has called it tenure for superintendents. The practice has forced some districts across the country to make huge payouts when they want to replace their superintendents short of the three years, she said.
Joki dismisses the recall effort against the four board members who ousted Clark as “silliness” that doesn’t help solve problems.
But to some recall advocates, such as Clint Shiflet, who has had three children in West Ada schools, it is a serious matter. The recall, he said, is about the board’s ability to run a large school district effectively, an issue that could affect West Ada’s economic well-being.
In choosing a new superintendent, Shiflet, a member of the Meridian Chamber of Commerce, hopes the board will bring together a panel of leaders to interview the candidates and offer feedback. “I think you need a good cross-section to help make that decision,” he said.
Dean, the board chair, is skeptical.
“I would welcome their feedback, but I am quite leery of it,” she said. “I think people with political power have had access for a long time. When we have a community event to meet the candidates, everyone will be invited.”
WHAT ABOUT EDUCATION?
Beyond the politics at the district level, West Ada still has to educate a growing number of students, and the next superintendent will have to deal with that, too.
Joki said his top concern is improving achievement. Madsen wants to know what can be done to involve more parents in the classroom.
Parents want the district to make a wide search to find the best superintendent.
This is how Valerie LaVigne, a parent, put it to the trustees Monday, “I ... believe that the candidate is not in this room, and I don’t necessarily believe they are in the state of Idaho.”
Here are preliminary plans for how West Ada trustees would conduct superintendent interviews.
▪ Board members will do an initial screening of candidates’ application.
▪ Candidates with interest from two or more board members will be interviewed.
▪ Initial interviews with candidates will be conducted by the board behind closed doors in executive sessions.
▪ The board may vote to introduce candidates to the public. Trustees hope to have one-hour forums at which people can meet candidates.
▪ Trustees have set no firm deadline on when they expect to fill the position, but they say they can offer a contract immediately if they come across a highly qualified candidate.
What caused the controversy?
The path to Linda Clark’s departure included the board’s decision to lop a year off her contract, saying it was approved by a previous board in a meeting that violated the state’s open meeting law. Clark also contended that the board offered her an unpalatable deal to leave: $56,000 and she would agree to stay on until taxpayers voted on a supplemental levy in November.
Bitterness over Clark’s treatment has led to a recall effort by former West Ada Superintendent Christine Donnell to oust Russell Joki, Julie Madsen, Carol Sayles and Tina Dean.
A second recall effort was launched against Mike Vuittonet (we-toe-NAY), a Clark supporter, by Daryl Sallaz, a retired Fairmont Junior High School teacher in Boise. Vuittonet was chair of the board that approved Clark’s contract extension, which he defends.