Paula Kellerer is no stranger to Nampa, or the Nampa School District, but she is spending the summer getting reacquainted.
Nampa’s new superintendent started work July 1, and is meeting one-on-one with members of the district’s leadership team. While she makes introductions and reintroductions, she isn’t making any big promises. She’s keeping an open slate, not unlike the unadorned walls in her new office.
Kellerer takes over a district only a few years removed from chaos. An ugly financial crisis left the state’s third-largest district staring at a $5.3 million shortfall. Labor negotiations were strained, teacher turnover was high and the district churned through four superintendents from 2012 to 2014. With the books balanced, the 54-year-old Kellerer says her goals will come back to two themes: student achievement and supporting the district’s teachers. During the hard times, Nampa struggled to focus on these objectives.
Back to the K-12 system
Kellerer’s resume includes six years as Nampa’s deputy superintendent, from 2004 to 2010. But her ties to the district run deeper; both of her children graduated from Nampa schools, and left prepared for their future.
“We deserve a great school system in this city,” she said.
Kellerer has spent the past seven years at Nampa’s Northwest Nazarene University. She was dean of NNU’s College of Adult and Graduate Studies, charged with helping older, non-traditional students juggle the demands of school, work and family. As Idaho continues to struggle with languid college graduation rates, this non-traditional cohort represents a key piece of Idaho’s student profile.
Kellerer’s unique resume — combining experience in the Nampa district and higher education — was a powerful selling point, said Brian McGourty, a former Nampa school trustee who headed the search for a new superintendent.
“She has the big picture, from pre-kindergarten all the way to postsecondary,” McGourty said.
The numbers illustrate the challenges facing Nampa, and Kellerer:
- The 2015 college “go-on” rates for the district’s three high schools ranged from 36 to 50 percent — with two schools falling short of the state’s disappointing 46 percent rate.
- In 2016, only 36 percent of Nampa kindergartners showed up for fall reading at grade level; statewide, this figure was 51 percent. Nampa narrowed this gap considerably in first through third grades, but the fall 2016 reading scores still fell below state averages.
- On the 2016 Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test — the online exam tied to Idaho Core Standards — Nampa lagged behind state proficiency rates in math and English language arts.
To be sure, Nampa faces demographic challenges. Nearly 66 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 49 percent of students statewide.
But Nampa has faced another challenge, of its own making. As administrators and trustees made the cuts necessary to erase a $5.1 million shortfall — and staff worked under the cloud of financial uncertainty — the district’s time and attention was divided.
“Our minds and our behavior have been diverted to surviving,” Kellerer said.
While she concedes Nampa has room to improve, Kellerer also sees promise — and some success stories.
Friday was graduation day in Nampa’s Gateways program, an alternative high school for students struggling with emotional issues. Three students graduated. This fall, two of them will attend the College of Western Idaho. The third will attend Boise State University.
Kellerer launched the Gateways program during her previous stint in the Nampa district.
One big job was not on Kellerer’s must-do list this summer: contract negotiations. The district and the teachers’ union reached a settlement in May. Last year, negotiations continued into September and the start of the school year. For the first time in four years, the district was able to reach an agreement without bringing in a federal mediator.
The district’s 850 teachers will receive raises of 3.6 to 7.5 percent — funded in part by the career ladder, a 2015 state law designed to boost teacher pay by $250 million over five years. Kellerer sees the value in the career ladder — partly because of her time at NNU, nationally recognized for its teacher preparation programs. As Idaho tries to convince college students to consider a career in the classroom, and choose teaching over more lucrative professions, the career ladder could be a good “first step,” Kellerer said.
The career ladder gives Kellerer more leeway in future bargaining sessions. So does Nampa’s fiscal turnaround.
Looking at the balance sheet and the district’s bond rating, the crisis has passed. Gone too is much of the turmoil. Teacher retention is improving. But Nampa’s teachers have endured a rough three or four years, Kellerer said. An improved financial picture does not necessarily equate to improved morale.
“We have to be thoughtful,” she said.
Despite Canyon County’s rapid growth, Nampa’s enrollment dropped by nearly 500 students in 2016-17.
District officials braced for the decrease, which predated Kellerer’s arrival. They knew one new charter school, Gem Prep, was opening its doors, while a second, Idaho Arts Charter School, was expanding. Lost students means lost revenues since Idaho bases state K-12 funding on average daily school attendance. The district will have to budget conservatively and keep a close eye on student movement, Kellerer said.
In the face of the enrollment drop, the district faces other financial pressures. Kellerer believes Nampa will have to take a hard look at building and facilities needs, which may have been set aside during the financial crunch. A two-year, $15.6 million supplemental levy is expiring, and Kellerer said the district will have to come back with a new levy proposal in the next few months.
All of these challenges — particularly the campaign for a levy — put a new superintendent into the community spotlight. But Kellerer goes into the job as a known quantity.
Kellerer’s connections with district staff, and her connections with community and business leaders, resonated with the search committee, McGourty said.
And Kellerer is unabashed about talking up the community, and its school district. “It is a place where I have my hopes and dreams.”