A second career in crisis management

Thomas Michaelson has walked into difficult management situations before.

In July 2007, less than three weeks before he took over as school superintendent in King City, Calif., a regional panel stripped King City High School of its accreditation. More than 1,000 people crammed into Michaelson’s first school board meeting at the helm — with parents and legislators alike seeking answers. (The school later got its accreditation back, and is accredited today.)

Michaelson mug
Thomas Michaelson, Nampa’s interim school superintendent

In November, Michaelson was hired to dig the Nampa School District out of a $4.3 million deficit. The hole was deeper than projected. Voters approved a $4.3 million supplemental levy in March, but the district still has to find another $2.9 million in cuts.

Recently, Michaelson has made a series of no-win decisions:

  • He has opted to close Sunny Ridge Elementary School at year’s end, displacing some 400 kids to save $500,000.
  • He asked administrators and faculty to take voluntary furlough days as a midyear cost-cutting move. The Nampa Education Association has sued, saying teachers were pressured into furloughs.
  • He has outsourced custodial jobs. The district says a private company will keep the 83-member work force intact, but taxpayers will save $300,000 in benefits and retirement costs. Next month, the School Board will consider outsourcing nutritional staff.

Out of retirement

It’s a difficult job, and Michaelson didn’t come looking for it.

He retired to Nampa in July 2010, about the time when the school district’s accounting errors began to mount, but long before the problems became public. After spending nearly 30 years as a superintendent in California — taking over at several troubled districts such as King City — Michaelson moved to Nampa, a city where his brothers live, and settled into a slower-paced life.

Then, after longtime Nampa Superintendent Gary Larsen resigned amidst the financial crisis, a member of the district’s search committee called Michaelson.

“My question was, ‘How in the world did you get my name?’” he recalled.

Michaelson had been watching news accounts of the unfolding saga. Michaelson — a basketball fan who played the game as a youth — admitted he had enough of a competitive streak to wonder if he could help. On Nov. 15, he was hired as interim superintendent.

‘A larger task’

When he came on board, Michaelson was surprised at what he found.

“It became a larger task than I originally thought it would be.”

By November, the root cause of Nampa’s fiscal problem was well-known. The district had double-counted some federal and state payments, and overestimated payments from other federal and state programs. While other districts tightened their finances in the face of state budget cuts, Nampa carried over inflated revenue estimates from year to year, compounding the problem.

The budget problems revealed an underlying issue, one Michaelson had seen before. The Nampa district tried to protect teaching jobs. In so doing, the district shaved administrative jobs, and oversight suffered. Patrons and politicians are often quick to complain about administrative costs; Michaelson, a career administrator, is skeptical.

“It’s easy to say, but you cannot operate without adequate staffing that is overseeing the lifeblood of the operation,” he said.

Michaelson does not criticize the School Board, even though board members were in office as the deficit grew. Three board seats are up for grabs on May 21, with two incumbents running. “They’re good people who got onto the board for the right reasons.”

Facing criticism

But there has been plenty of criticism to go around, and Michaelson has been the target of much of it.

Nampa Education Association President Mandy Simpson says she tried to meet with district leaders on several occasions to discuss the furloughs, but the union was rebuffed. “In the end, the school district’s actions left us with no choice,” Simpson told the Idaho Press-Tribune.

When the district announced plans to close Sunny Ridge — less than a week after voters passed the $4.3 million levy — some parents lamented the loss of a neighborhood school and hammered the district’s timing.

As an interim superintendent, assigned to fix a financial mess, Michaelson knows he is an easy target of criticism: a cut-at-all-costs CEO. But, he says, both the voluntary furloughs and the Sunny Ridge closure had been discussed long before he came on board.

Michaelson has supporters. Molly Lenty volunteered for the levy. She has a daughter attending Sunny Ridge. But Lenty, a member of the group Community for Nampa Schools, agrees with the decision to close the good but aging school, and says Nampa is fortunate to have an experienced superintendent at the helm.

“I think he’s in a really hard position,” she said. “The fat’s already been cut.”

Facing the future

Closing Sunny Ridge allows Nampa to trim three or four teaching positions: an incremental cost-cutting step. The district will need to cut 40 to 50 teaching jobs, perhaps through attrition.

The budget hits keep on coming. Federal budget cuts, known commonly as “sequestration,” will force Nampa to absorb $180,000 in special education costs. Health insurance premiums are expected to increase by 12 percent. Neither of these problems are unique to Nampa — but for a district looking to cut $2.9 million, they complicate a trying situation.

So how much longer will Michaelson stay on the job? He laughs and presses a thumb on the inside of his wrist, jokingly checking his pulse.

His contract runs through June, but he wants to see the district through its financial crisis. He and the board have a verbal agreement for him to stay through 2013-14, “and then we’ll see.”

Introduced as an interim superintendent, Michaelson doesn’t dwell on the interim tag. He praises teachers for the work they’ve done admist “turmoil,” and he makes time to visit the schools, and tries to keep up morale. “I purposefully would rather encompass the whole of the job, rather than a piece of it.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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