Moving away from crisis management to ‘kid issues’

David Peterson doesn’t want to offer advice to his colleague, West Ada schools Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells.

For one thing, Peterson’s wife is a West Ada district employee.

David Peterson interview
Nampa superintendent David Peterson was hired in 2014 to lead a district that had just dug out of a financial crisis. The money problems were a symptom of other problems. “We were a loose confederation of 24 schools.”

But Peterson knows a thing or two about taking a school district in turmoil. In 2014, Nampa trustees hired Peterson; job one was helping the state’s third-largest district get back on task after erasing a $5.1 million shortfall.

To be sure, Nampa’s crisis was one of a different color. West Ada’s turmoil grew from months of public feuding between trustees and Superintendent Linda Clark, who resigned in October. Ranells was hired two months later.

In an interview last week, Peterson discussed the transition in Nampa. Here are four takeaways.

Turnover isn’t necessarily a bad thing. West Ada trustees have hired a new superintendent and filled two board vacancies, all in the past four months. The financial crisis triggered a housecleaning in Nampa district headquarters — which unfolded before Peterson took over.

“Any fingerpointing was almost pointless at that point,” he said. “I was pretty fortunate that the decks were pretty clear by the time I got here.”

Moving into ‘moving-forward’ questions. Peterson said he inherited a district with rock-bottom morale. Emotions were raw. In a way, Peterson said, this also afforded an opportunity. Employees were ready to discuss “moving-forward type questions.”

A crisis can hide a root problem. The district’s “fiscal car wreck” wasn’t just a crisis unto itself, Peterson said. Instead, the financial crisis was indicative of a lax district that treated its 24 schools like a loose confederation. Without some measure of structure, employees weren’t able to innovate. “People can only get creative to the extent they can feel safe in being creative.”

Shifting the focus to children. In 2014, in his first interview with Idaho Education News and 6 On Your Side, Peterson was already talking about the need to move the discussion away from finances, and shift the focus back to academics.

The focus appears to have shifted. In March, two agencies upgraded Nampa’s bond rating. And last week, moments before Peterson reflected on the district’s financial rebound in an interview, the district received word that it would receive two state grants to launch pilots in mastery-based education.

Ranells seems to be trying to move West Ada’s storyline away from school board infighting, Peterson said.

“I know she is really focused on getting the whole district focused on kid issues,” he said.

Read more, see more, hear more

Idaho Education News and 6 On Your Side have teamed up for an in-depth, multimedia project on the West Ada School District’s past and future.

  • A tide of change, a turbulent future: What awaits the state’s largest school district? We get perspectives from three West Ada trustees.
  • Coming Friday: The West Ada controversy signals a new era in school board politics.
  • Tune in: Watch 6 On Your Side Thursday and Friday night for coverage of the West Ada story.
  • At kivitv.com: Watch our in-depth interviews with the West Ada trustees. And take a look at a detailed, multimedia West Ada timeline.
  • ‘Extra Credit:’ In our weekly podcast, Kevin Richert sits down with Michelle Edmonds of 6 On Your Side to discuss the West Ada project. Listen here.