Idaho Falls staff reels from board decisions to cut jobs, change schedules

IDAHO FALLS — After days of fearing for the worst, it happened: Juliette Bruner got the news her position was being cut.

Idaho Falls school trustees decided last week to make $4.3 million in cuts, including more than 20 staff positions. In some cases, principals were asked to determine which positions to cut at their schools. Positions like Bruner’s — a college and career adviser — were on the list of possible jobs to eliminate.

Bruner has worked for the district in a variety of capacities for 19 years. Since finding out Monday afternoon she won’t have a job next school year, she’s worried she’ll have to sell her house and move in with her elderly parents. She’s been scouring job openings already, but hasn’t seen many that fit her experience.

“It’s embarrassing and humbling and just completely overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve been sick to my stomach, I haven’t slept, I’ve cried.”

Trustees unanimously decided to make the budget and staffing cuts after realizing the district was overspending by about $4 million annually. And, faced with a low graduation rate of about 75%, they also approved a new schedule that calls for secondary students to learn online one day a week, though some will attend in person for extra help or instruction.

The changes have impacted morale, with staff members wondering how the district ended up in these dire financial straits and pressing for more transparency.

The changes are just the latest upheaval at an embattled school district that has been in the news frequently for litigation, including a $33 million plant facilities levy that was invalidated, and a settlement in a case regarding alleged bond advocacy.

Idaho Falls is not the only district navigating a budget deficiency — Coeur d’Alene trustees are also weighing how to respond to a projected $4.6 million shortfall, and are considering calendar changes, program cuts, a school closure and a staffing reduction. 

A breakdown of the schedule change and cutbacks

Here are the changes that will be made to next year’s schedule in Idaho Falls schools:

  • One day a week, secondary students will learn online. However, if they are behind or in advanced classes, they may be required to attend in person for a shortened day. 
  • Trustees have not yet decided which day of the week that will be for secondary students, but will likely take it up at their next regular meeting on May 8, Idaho Falls Superintendent Karla LaOrange said. 
  • Elementary students will be released an hour early on Mondays, as opposed to the current schedule of starting an hour late on Fridays. 

The schedule is similar to one in place at Bonneville School District, and focuses on “intervention,” or helping struggling students get back on track.

For more information, take a look at this document

The $4.3 million in cuts include the following:


Cuts Cost savings
20 full-time teachers (which will be reduced via attrition as much as possible, LaOrange said) $1.5 million
Three elementary assistant principals Unclear
Two of these four positions at the high schools: counselor, graduation advocate, dean of students, college and career advisor Unclear
Eliminate one of these two positions at the middle schools: counselor, student success advocate Unclear 
Eliminate two clerical positions between four schools Unclear
Reduce funding for paraprofessionals who help English language learners (potentially find funding through other avenues) $63,974
Eliminate elementary health techs $67,405
Reduce technology staff by one $60,000

Some of the savings are unclear due to changes made at the meeting that were not updated on this document regarding proposed cuts.

Staff stipends, pay boosts, travel

Cuts Cost savings
Staff leadership stipends $150,000
One-time annual payments to staff of $250 to $500 $746,397
Travel expenses $50,000
Stipends for staff taking on middle school athletic director duties $5,412

Programs and supplies

Cuts Cost Savings
Reduce funding for IStation, which teachers use to assess student achievement $170,578
Reduce funding for maintenance and operations and business supplies $30,000
Funding for a transition to Microsoft, which is 18 months away $80,000
Funding for student supplies $506,054
Reduce funding for software programs  $69,062

Total cuts: $4.3 million

For a list of the originally proposed cuts, which ranged from $4.8 to $4.9 million, go here

Trustees say new schedule will boost graduation rates, but employees say staff and budget cuts will harm students

In the days since the decisions were made, teachers have had mixed reactions to the schedule change, but are disheartened by the cuts, according to Julie Nawrocki, a math teacher at Skyline High and the president of the Idaho Falls Education Association. 

The unanimous decisions came at a meeting that lasted more than six hours. Teachers, parents, staff, and students addressed the board, most opposing the changes. 

A few called out the district for making multiple major changes at once, including one who called the moves “a slap in the face.”

“It’s not a bad slap,” Trustee Paul Haacke later said at the regular meeting. His reasoning: the changes may feel sudden, but ultimately they are designed to positively impact students.

“When it comes to over a quarter of our kids not graduating, I don’t think we can wait a year or two or three … we need to address it today,” he said. 

Paul Haacke, an Idaho Falls School District trustee. Photo: Idaho Falls School District

Last year, Idaho Falls’ four-year graduation rate was 75.6%, as compared to the state average of 81.1%. The graduation rates were frequently mentioned throughout the meeting as a catalyst for the rapid changes. 

But multiple staff members told trustees cutting employees would be detrimental to students. 

“Please just remember, these are hardworking educators who have all contributed to student success in our districts,” Chris Powell, the principal at Idaho Falls High, said at the meeting. “Without the additional support from our school personnel, I believe attendance, achievement, graduation rates, and most importantly, future life opportunities for these kids will decline.”

Jessica Risenmay, a bookkeeper at Skyline High, echoed his sentiments: “As a district who says it is trying to raise graduation rates, why is it proposing so many personnel cuts at the high school?” 

Since the meeting, Risenmay has learned that she will have to reapply for her position. Instead of one bookkeeper at each high school, two schools will share one. That means Risenmay and a fellow bookkeeper — who she personally knows — will have to vie for one position.

“It’s basically ‘Hunger Games,’” she said in an interview with EdNews. “The last person standing will get the job.”

Risenmay oversees finances for clubs, athletics, events — basically any money that comes in or out. But it’s more than that, she said: “I’m a friend and mentor, I’m a tutor. I make relationships with these students.”

Among all the cuts being made, Nawrocki said she was especially concerned about reducing funds for paraprofessionals who help English language learners, “who are one of our highest at-risk populations.” 

Other cuts that will be especially painful include losing elementary assistant principals, which will make it difficult for schools to respond to increased behavioral issues, Nawrocki said. And the half million in cuts for student supplies will likely drive teachers to pick up those costs. 

Staff members want answers and transparency

The district is overspending by about $4 million annually, and the cuts are an attempt to get back on track, according to trustees. 

The goal is to finish each school year with about $11 million in what is essentially the district’s savings account, Idaho Falls Superintendent Karla LaOrange said. 

Lanell Farmer, the district’s business coordinator, said at the board meeting that the district needs those funds to pay for expenditures like payroll and programs until it is reimbursed with state and federal dollars.

Trustees expect to finish this school year with about $7 million in the budget. If they hadn’t taken action to save money, that number would’ve continued to dwindle. 

The big question many patrons want answered: How did the district get here, with $4 million being overspent each year?

LaOrange, who is in her first school year as the district’s superintendent, said she and Farmer have gone back through the district’s financial records to find out. 

Karla LaOrange, superintendent of Idaho Falls School District. Photo: Idaho Falls School District.

She attributes the funding shortage to a variety of reasons, including:

  • Overspending $1 million for software that allows parents to track the location of students on buses, which was a one-time expense. 
  • Losing funding when state support again became based on attendance instead of enrollment: The reversion to attendance-based funding cost districts millions of dollars this school year. 
  • The district hired more staff members than they receive funding for from the state. 

During the board meeting, trustees also cited expiring COVID-19 dollars as a contributing factor. The ESSER dollars, as they’re called in education parlance, helped fund 16 staff positions, according to this document

LaOrange declined to go into more specific detail about the funding shortage, or provide a detailed financial breakdown of where the $4 million is being overspent, exactly. And that’s the information staff members seem to want.

“We want to know where we’re hemorrhaging money,” Nawrocki told EdNews. “There really isn’t any transparency.”

Staff members also wonder why such large cuts are being made, when an estimated $2 million is headed to Idaho Falls to make up for money lost in the switch to attendance-based funding. LaOrange said doing so would be a one-time solution, not a long-term fix. 

Plus, trustees said the amount of money the district will receive is not certain, so it would be best not to count on a specific number. 

Staff uncertain about future; trustee urges reconciliation

Meanwhile, staff members are uncertain about their futures at the district. 

“I don’t know a single staff member that isn’t concerned about job security,” Jerica Hardy, a language arts teacher at Idaho Falls High, said at the meeting. “The uncertainty has caused panic within the district, which is certainly not what’s best for students … How can you focus on a safe reliable learning environment for your kids, if you’re not sure you can feed your own next year?”

One teacher, Juan Hirales, found out two weeks ago that his job was being eliminated due to budget cuts. He’s now applying for jobs at other schools. 

“It was a shock to me,” he said. “But I’ve just got to push forward.”

“The animosity between teachers and the district is palatable … and I really think that needs to be mended,” Trustee Jeremy Westwood said after hearing from staff members pushing back against the budget cuts last week. “There needs to be open arms, understanding, and grace on both sides.”

Jeremy Westwood, an Idaho Falls School District trustee. Photo: Idaho Falls School District.
Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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