Koehler steps into Nampa’s whirlwind

Pete Koehler’s promotion was a sudden surprise — even to Koehler.

On the night of May 14, Thomas Michaelson resigned abruptly, and publicly, as the Nampa School District’s interim superintendent. The School Board moved into a closed executive session. Koehler — Nampa High School’s principal, who had added assistant superintendent’s duties in April, at Michaelson’ urging — told the board the it couldn’t afford to leave the top spot vacant for too long.

Board members listened. They offered Koehler the job, and he accepted. The board wrapped up a tumultuous meeting by announcing Koehler’s appointment.

Koehler NegotiationsALT
Pete Koehler, appointed Nampa’s interim superintendent on May 14, presides over a contract negotiating session Tuesday evening.

The job itself also has been a whirlwind. Three weeks into the job, Koehler is engaged in difficult contract negotiations, central to erasing a projected $3.5 million shortfall. He also realizes that the beleaguered district has a difficult job ahead, as it tries to regain community trust.

Stepping into negotiations

When School Board chairman Scott Kido talked to reporters on May 14, he talked about Koehler’s connections in the Nampa education community. While Michaelson had three decades of experience as a superintendent, he had spent his professional career in California, moving to Nampa to retire. Kido said Koehler would be able to tap into “a more positive support system” as superintendent.

“Nampa is still a relatively close-knit community,” Koehler said in an interview Wednesday. “For good or bad, I’m a known quantity.”

Local experience — four years in the classroom, four years as an elementary school principal and seven years as a high school principal — does not make it any easier to balance the budget. In some ways, it complicates the task — as was evident during Friday’s contract negotiating session.

After the district recommended imposing 14 furlough days to save $2.6 million, Idaho Education Association regional director Harry McCarty castigated the district for seeking deeper cuts than anyone could have envisioned. Koehler expressed his own agony. “This rips my guts,” he said.

It’s not a unique dilemma. Furloughs were commonplace in other communities, as districts slogged through the recession. Nampa didn’t impose furloughs, as previous administrators made a series of accounting errors and piled up a deficit exceeding $5 million. Now, Nampa faces a budget crisis and an employee retention issue; teachers may flee Nampa for districts on better financial footing.

But as the negotiations continue — and the district awaits a counteroffer from the local teachers’ union — Koehler says this is more than just a business decision.

“These are my people. They aren’t unknown employees of a large corporation,” he said Wednesday. “It’s a very personal thing to me, but you don’t run away from it.”

Answering the call

The adornments in Koehler’s new office offer glimpses into his background, and his avocation. On display are photos of Army tanks — Koehler retired from the military as a field grade officer, after serving in the first Gulf War. Also on display are posters identifying Idaho’s native trout —  such as those found on Central Idaho’s Big Wood River, Koehler’s fishery of choice.

Koehler had figured on retiring as principal after the 2012-13 school year, which would have put him on the Big Wood in early June. Instead, he accepted the interim superintendent’s job. “The district couldn’t just be allowed to wander again.”

Koehler didn’t come in cold. He had served on a task force, convened by Michaelson after his appointment in November, to consider potential spending cuts. That means he is familiar with the ideas on the table, and not without some opinions.

During that May 14 board meeting, before Michaelson resigned and before Koehler was promoted, trustees voted to look at restructuring the high school bell schedule. Dropping the current four-period block schedule, and using a traditional eight-period schedule, could reduce teacher prep time and save $1.5 million, supporters say.

Koehler says the district will look at the idea, as the board wants. But he’s skeptical. The promised savings can only be achieved by cutting teaching positions. A block schedule — with longer classes that meet every other day — allows students to take a bus from one high school to another, and take specialized science or foreign language courses.

Koehler, who says he took the interim job out of concern for Nampa’s 16,500 students, doesn’t hide his concern about changing the bell schedule. “You’re going to have to take away from children to do this.”

Repairing Nampa’s image

Last week, Koehler was named in the latest lawsuit against the Nampa district. Former budget analyst Dianna “DeeDee” Ruettgers says she was wrongfully fired after questioning the way the district spent federal Title I dollars. The lawsuit attributes a salty quote to Koehler: “Screw the auditors. The feds won’t take our money away.”

On Wednesday, Koehler said he did not recall making the comment, and said, as a school principal, that he had no authority over Title I spending.

Regardless of the outcome, this new lawsuit only plays into the Nampa district’s bruised public image. The allegations suggest more loose spending and sloppy controls in the state’s third largest school district, even after a new administrative team was brought in to clean up business operations.

And regardless of the outcome, many district accounting errors are already an undisputed matter of public record. The district needs to regain the community’s trust and show that it is getting its finances back in order, Koehler said.

One reason: The district is in the second year of a two-year, $3.2 million supplemental levy. It would be difficult to write budgets for 2014-15 and beyond without asking voters to at least keep this levy intact, Koehler said.

But Koehler hopes he is out of a job around that time. He expects the district to find a permanent superintendent by this winter. He expects to stay on for a few months during the transition.

A more orderly departure, in other words, than his arrival on the job.

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]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday