In the Classroom

West Ada trustees need time to become a team, new board member says

Julie Madsen, a newly seated trustee on the West Ada School Board, doesn’t think the board is gunning for Linda Clark, the district superintendent for 11 years.

In a testy meeting of the West Ada board earlier this month, Clark and Russell “Russ” Joki, another recently elected trustee, exchanged words over Clark’s job contract and comments she had made to the press about education reform.

But Madsen doesn’t see that as translating into a move to oust Clark.

“I don’t have the impression that is the issue that is in the forefront of the board ... going forward,” she said.

After reporting on that meeting, I wrote a follow-up story a couple of days later raising the question about whether such a frank exchange between a new trustee and a superintendent sent an unintended message about a dysfunctional governing relationship.

I called Madsen for her views on the meeting and where she thought the board was headed. We were unable to connect before the story ran. So a few days ago, we spent more than an hour talking about the district and her vision for it. We talked about that meeting, growth in the district and accountability for tax dollars. Here are some highlights:

Meeting night: Madsen attributed the tension in that July 7 meeting to a reconfigured board trying to feel its way as its members get to know each other. The board needs time to work together, take time to discuss issues and give time for Clark to join in that discussion, she said: “That is really how we are going to move past this uncertainty and uneasiness we may be experiencing.”

Clark’s contract: Both Madsen and Joki expressed concern during the meeting about the previous board’s vote in June to extend the two years left on Clark’s contract by an additional year. The June meeting was the final one before the new board took office. Joki said the new board should revisit that decision. Madsen says she is concerned about contracts that last three years.

“As a taxpayer and an employee, I have never enjoyed the luxury of a three-year contract,” said Madsen, a physician. “I think most taxpayers would find that problematic.”

Many taxpayers think tenure for teachers is a terrible thing, she said. But extended contracts “have created a system where we have tenure for superintendents,” she said. “We really have to manage this money,” she said.

Growth: West Ada, whose student population typically grows by several hundred a year, can build new schools only if taxpayers agree to sell bonds that are paid by their property tax dollars. Madsen said that strategy has created a growth crisis and overcrowded schools.

Madsen thinks it is time for impact fees assessed on those contributing to growth to help pay a share of school construction costs. What’s more, she thinks the Legislature, which has rebuffed that idea in the past, may be more willing to listen now.

Lawmakers have recognized “we have cut too deeply (in education), and we need to reinvest,” Madsen said. “My hope is with that softening will come an attitude that is more receptive to other sources of funding for education.”

I called Joki on Monday night to extend the same offer to discuss his role and vision for the board, since I was unable to reach him either before my story ran on July 10. I have not yet heard back.