Nampa’s newbies settle in to face challenges

Brian McGourty was newly appointed to the Nampa School Board in 1991 when the district’s teachers went on strike. The work stoppage ran four days and ended Sept. 20; teachers have not gone on strike since, in Nampa or anywhere else in Idaho.

Around that time, Mike Fuller was a junior high school student, but a busy one, working a paper route in the morning, playing for his school football and baseball teams after class.

The May elections ushered in two newcomers to the Nampa School Board: McGourty, a 61-year-old optometrist, and Fuller, a 35-year-old LDS Church seminary teacher. Despite differing backgrounds, they see the challenges before them in much the same way.

A ‘perfect storm’

Brian McGourty
Brian McGourty

Ask McGourty and Fuller about Nampa’s financial crisis — the miscalculations and the accounting errors that have compounded over years — and they use the identical phrase. A perfect storm.

Both place much of the blame with former Superintendent Gary Larsen, who resigned in September in the midst of the worsening shortfall. Fuller praises Larsen’s record as an educational innovator who focused more on classroom matters. McGourty describes Larsen as being “somewhat detached” from financing. For McGourty, this is no small admission; as a trustee, he was on the search committee that led to Larsen’s hire in 1994.

Part of the equation, says McGourty, was a School Board that may have lacked the skills to scrutinize finances. In an Idaho Press-Tribune questionnaire this spring, McGourty put it bluntly: “The board is primarily responsible for hiring the superintendent, establishing performance goals and objectives for the superintendent and overseeing the fiscal operations of the district. As a result, they bear all responsibility for the current financial crisis. The fact that they may have received inaccurate information does not mitigate their responsibility.”

In an interview last week, McGourty conceded he will have to change his style. “Those are obstacles we need to overcome.”

Facing the funding crunch

Mike Fuller
Mike Fuller

Fuller and McGourty were sworn into office last week in a packed meeting room — filled to overflowing by teachers and their supporters. In essence, this put the School Board’s newest members face-to-face with Nampa’s financial crisis. The district is imposing 14 furlough days in 2013-14, the centerpiece of its plan to eliminate a shortfall pegged at roughly $3 million.

Before Tuesday’s School Board meeting, the Nampa Education Association held a tailgate party to call attention to the ongoing labor negotiations. The two new school board members were not put off by the rally. Fuller, in particular, bristled at the suggestion that the union was trying to upstage the board. “I think it was great to see them come out.”

Both Fuller and McGourty are glad labor negotiations will resume Thursday, even though contracts imposing the 14 furlough days were distributed on July 1. But both new board members are also well aware of the financial realities. The district has to balance the books, and the only path to do that is to cut the salaries and benefits that comprise more than 80 percent of the budget.

A crisis of confidence

The district faces another deficit: a loss of credibility. The same skepticism and suspicions, said McGourty, at the heart of the 1991 teachers’ strike.

But the district doesn’t just have to regain the trust of its employees. It has to regain the trust of the community.

In the past 11 months, voters have approved $7.5 million in property tax levies, designed to help offset deficits. Since then, the district made the controversial decision to close Sunny Ridge Elementary School — a move McGourty and Fuller both support. The budget news has only grown worse: in May, the district disclosed an $1.2 million accounting error, saying money collected for building bonds was improperly spent on day-to-day operations.

This creates a dilemma for the district and an inexperienced five-member School Board; Bob Otten and Joca Veloz each have a little over a year’s experience apiece. This board will have to dig out from mistakes made before they took office, from a financial crisis years in the making, and will have to decide whether to try to renew levies that expire in 2014.

Fuller is noncommittal. McGourty doesn’t see trying again before next spring. First, Nampa needs to show it is taking steps to dig out of its fiscal hole. “There’s too much damage that’s occurred too recently,” he said.

Engaging the community

School Board elections are usually low-key, but the May Nampa board elections were an exception.

McGourty decided to run to return to the board, after a 13-year hiatus, partly to give acting Superintendent Thomas Michaelson some backing. When Michaelson abruptly quit a week before the election — after the board balked at proposed faculty cuts — McGourty decided to drop out of the race. Supporters urged McGourty to stay in the race, defeating two opponents to win an open seat.

Fuller’s race lacked some of this drama, but it was significant nonetheless; he captured 74 percent of the vote to oust 12-year incumbent Dale Wheeler.

While both are aware of the financial problems of the moment, the issues that defined their election, both want the district to focus on education reform as well.

Fuller has sons entering the seventh and fifth grades this fall, and gives the district high marks for its educational offerings. As the district looks to replace interim Superintendent Pete Koehler in the next few months, Fuller wants to see the district hire an educational reformer — but one supported by a strong accounting staff.

McGourty wants to see the community engaged in a discussion about education in Nampa — about using technology and working with the business community to brainstorm about better preparing students for the future. In a way, the current crisis gives Nampa an opportunity to start the conversation.

“We’ve got the attention of the community, for the wrong reasons.”

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