Turmoil has been a constant tidal force reshaping the West Ada School District.
Trustees prefer to talk about another constant undercurrent. Despite a year of political discord and drama, they say the district’s faculty have quietly gone about the business of teaching 37,000 students.
“I don’t know anyone who’s looking backwards right now,” said newly appointed school board member Philip Neuhoff. “I’m certainly not.”
But the state’s largest school district has experienced a year of turnover, and the churn is not necessarily over. The board’s senior member, Mike Vuittonet, says West Ada needs to restore a sense of normalcy — and allow patrons to return to the days when they didn’t have to be concerned about their school board.
A chaotic chronology
By now, West Ada’s chaotic chronology is well-known:
- Trustees Julie Madsen and Russell Joki, elected in May 2015, resigned under the cloud of a recall.
- Neuhoff was appointed in February to serve out Madsen’s term — and he’s not even the rookie on the school board anymore. On Tuesday, trustees appointed Rene Ozuna to succeed Joki.
- The recall elections are still on for May 17, as voters decide whether they want to keep board Chairwoman Tina Dean and trustee Carol Sayles. Former district Superintendent Christine Donnell is leading the recall effort, and on Thursday, the Meridian Chamber of Commerce came out in favor of the recall. If both trustees are recalled, Neuhoff would rise to the No. 2 spot in board seniority, only three months after his appointment.
- Then there’s the turnover in the superintendent’s office. After months of sparring with trustees — particularly the newly elected Madsen and Joki — Superintendent Linda Clark abruptly resigned in the middle of a contract year, after 11 years as superintendent. Two months later, former Lakeland School District Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells came out of retirement to take the top job.
Many key players aren’t talking.
Ranells has declined to discuss the recalls, and did not respond to repeated interview requests this month. Clark declined an interview request, as did Joki. Madsen declined an interview request, citing personal time conflicts. Sayles did not respond to interview requests.
Three sitting trustees were willing to discuss West Ada’s past and its future. Here’s the story, from their differing perspectives.
The (relative) newbie
Neuhoff had never been to a West Ada board meeting before last fall. Then, he became engaged in the West Ada saga as an outsider. He launched a Facebook page, West Ada Files, to share documents obtained through public records requests.
But Neuhoff — a researcher by profession, who holds a doctorate in geology from Stanford University — is not too interested in sleuthing out the root causes of the district’s public implosion.
“I’m well past that point,” he said.
Now, Neuhoff said he has but one axe to grind. He wants the board to do right by students. Neuhoff has a son at Eagle High School and a daughter at Eagle Middle School, and said he hopes to bring a parent’s perspective to the board.
Neuhoff admires the district’s track record of stretching scarce resources during the recession. The district’s financial challenges are endemic: In 2014-15, its per-pupil spending ranked No. 101 among Idaho’s 115 school districts. When Joki prevailed in court last November, and a district judge threw out West Ada’s student fees, the budget took a $600,000 hit.
The effects surface in many ways. The district can’t easily replace textbooks, because some books in use are out of print. Some history books stop with Bill Clinton’s time as president. Health textbooks include outdated food pyramids.
Here, Neuhoff hopes the furor of the past year has a benefit. He hopes the public will help review new textbooks — a time-consuming and thankless chore — but he knows it’s up to the district to get the public involved. “We’re all in this together.”
The embattled chair
When opponents gathered enough signatures to launch a recall against Dean, she had two options. She could resign or go through the recall process.
She chose to stay on, although she says she is not actively campaigning against the recall organizers. She decided not to resign, partly for personal reasons. Her daughter is graduating this year, as are some of Dean’s former fourth- and fifth-grade students.
“I would really like to hand them their diplomas in June,” said Dean, who now operates a shipping business with her husband.
If Dean survives the recall, she would also face some more complicated tasks. One item — deliberately placed on hold — illustrates the rift on the board.
Sometime after the recall election, the board will have to decide whether to continue its membership with the Idaho School Boards Association. During his time on the board, Joki pushed for West Ada to drop its ISBA membership, at an annual cost exceeding $35,000. Vuittonet so strongly supports the ISBA that he ran for the group’s presidency in November, but lost.
Dean says this is a decision that should be left to the new board, whatever shape that takes after the May 17 elections. But Dean does harbor her own frustrations with the ISBA. She believes the organization hasn’t done enough to push for its own resolution supporting school impact fees; West Ada has pushed for an impact fee law to help the district build new schools and keep pace with enrollment growth.
Dean has tried to keep a relatively low profile during the past year — but in late October, she issued an 1,127-word statement challenging Clark’s contention that she was forced off the job. On other occasions, she has tried to stay clear of the fray, citing her role as chair.
Dean admits to one misstep as chair. In June, the board approved a one-year contract extension for Clark, over Dean’s objections, after discussing the contract behind closed doors. The contract and the closed-door meeting became flashpoints in the West Ada saga. The board later rescinded the extension after deciding the closed meeting violated state law.
In retrospect, Dean says she wished she’d known the June meeting was illegal. “I just trusted, I guess, that we were doing the right thing.”
The contrarian veteran
As a 15-year board member — and the one Clark loyalist still on the board — Vuittonet finds himself in the role of contrarian. That happened again Tuesday, when Vuittonet was on the short end of a 3-1 vote to appoint Ozuna to the board.
The appraiser and real estate agent isn’t letting go of the past.
In a recent interview, he leveled a new allegation. Last fall, Joki asked for a list of every district employee, and each trustee received a copy. The intent, said Vuittonet, was to scour recall petitions for employee names. “It was, to me, an intimidation,” he said, “and it really did work.”
While Joki declined a request for an extended interview, he responded by email to Vuittonet’s claims. “Mike Vuittonet is a liar of the biggest order,” said Joki. “The list was used to make introductions when I and other trustees visited schools.”
Vuittonet is disappointed by what he has seen in the past months.
Voters extended a two-year, $28 million supplemental levy in November, 11 days after Clark’s resignation, but Vuittonet attributes that to groundwork the board laid well before controversy gripped the board.
And in its biggest decision, hiring a successor to Clark, the board moved too quickly, Vuittonet said. Trustees rejected Vuittonet’s suggestion that they work through the ISBA on the search. The search was largely done in-house, he said, and was “insufficient.” It was only through luck that the district hired Ranells, less than two months after Clark’s departure.
“We were extremely fortunate to get someone of her caliber,” Vuittonet said.
Moving forward, Vuittonet says the board has to get back to a more deliberative process. But for the district to move forward, trustees may well have to set aside some old history.
It’s quite possible that Dean and Sayles will survive next month’s recall. And even though Joki and Madsen have resigned, Vuittonet still supports the other recalls. And he does this even though he might wind up having to work with colleagues he wanted to see voted out.
“I’ll move forward in the best way that we can,” 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.
- Kevin’s blog: An Idaho superintendent talks about his experience taking a school district through turmoil.
- 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.