As a Southern California teenager, Mike Vuittonet captured center stage on “American Bandstand” and claimed Golden Gloves boxing awards.
Those feats required grace and charm and perseverance and determination. He’s calling on those traits now, at age 58, during a controversial year as a West Ada school trustee.
“If he feels really strongly about something, he’s going to go for it — he won’t back down,” said Christine Donnell, a former West Ada School District superintendent who served with Vuittonet. “He is not willing to ignore something that is not right.”
In a two-hour interview with Idaho Education News, Vuittonet said there’s a lot “not going right” in a district where he has served for 15 years over four elected terms. It’s sad, he said, because Idaho’s largest district, which serves 37,000 students and manages nearly $200 million, has long been a beacon of success.
“There is so much to do to repair damage that’s been done,” Vuittonet said of recent turmoil. “My nature is not one that when things get rough I pull back. With controversy, I tend to move to the front.”
West Ada’s tumultuous year
Vuittonet is by far West Ada’s longest-serving trustee. Carol Sayles and Tina Dean joined the board two years ago and Julie Madsen and Russell Joki joined this summer. In the past nine months, the board has tossed Vuittonet from his chairmanship duties and elected Dean and Madsen to chair and vice chair. He’s been on the losing end of multiple 4-1 votes.
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“It’s like scorched Earth — this board is dismantling the system,” Vuittonet said.
Joki, who would not respond to an interview request for this story, shared his disappointment in an earlier article about Clark: “Dr. Clark, our former superintendent, walked off the job and left us unexpectedly.”
Vuittonet’s move to Meridian
Vuittonet married his high school sweetheart and soulmate, Debbie. They met at age 15 on a dance floor at Disneyland.
Dancing was their passion, and with persistence made their way onto “American Bandstand,” a popular national TV show featuring teens dancing to the day’s top hits. Mike and Debbie sneaked onto the main stage, and with their skilled and unique dance moves, they caught the eye of famed host Dick Clark.
“Dick Clark loved us,” said Vuittonet, while showing off an autographed picture of Mike, Debbie and Clark that sits on his mantle today. “We became regulars and were always welcome on the set. We came in third in a national dance contest back then.”
Debbie and Mike married, had four children and moved to Idaho in 1993 because “we wanted to raise our family in a better place. It proved to be the right thing,” he said.
They built their dream home in Meridian. It has a backyard creek covered by a giant willow tree and is surrounded with a white picket fence.
Six years later, the dream life was shattered during a family camping trip. A faulty trailer break resulted in a horrific one-car accident. Mike was driving. Debbie lost her life. Two of their daughters were thrown from the vehicle but survived. Though the accident happened 16 years ago, Mike still tears up as he remembers the tragedy and family recovery.
“When my daughter told me she was pregnant just nine months after the accident, every emotion collided in me,” he remembers. “Debbie never saw her grandchildren.”
Three years later, Mike met and eventually married his second wife, Lisa, who moved into the dream home and joined the Vuittonets with her three children. All seven of their kids attended Meridian schools and Lisa’s daughter is now a teacher in Meridian. They share seven grandchildren.
“This might sound corny, but I love this community and I appreciate being a part of it,” Vuittonet said. “Being elected is more of a privilege than any kind of labor.”
Vuittonet’s 15 years with the district
Vuittonet didn’t seek out public service. He was begged to run for trustee by then-superintendent Donnell. He ran unopposed and was naïve about the task.
“He was totally green but he embraced it,” Donnell said. “He sat and listened and learned before eventually became an excellent board member.”
While Vuittonet was on the board, he oversaw the leadership transition from Donnell to Clark.
He was there through dramatic growth in the district — and through the Great Recession, when state dollars were drastically cut.
“We had to make a lot of tough decisions as a board but I’m most proud we did not reduce our force by one employee,” he said. “We tried to shrink the system instead of dismantle parts and pieces. As hard as it was, we had a lot of success.”
Vuittonet was instrumental in West Ada’s partnership with Idaho State University and the land acquisition of a complex that holds district offices and Renaissance High, a school of choice for students interested in a college prep curriculum.
“A lot of vision went into that,” he said. “I’m proud we are able to offer choices to parents.”
While Vuittonet has been undefeated in his trustee elections, he’s twice lost in Republican legislative primaries. He said he might run again but not until the West Ada woes are over.
What’s next for Vuittonet
Vuittonet faces a recall effort stemming from a June 23 trustee meeting, when the board offered Clark a contract renewal for 2017-18. Recall organizers say Vuittonet violated open meeting laws by discussing the contract extension behind closed doors. Vuittonet disputes the claims.
The other four trustees also face a recall campaign, supported by Vuittonet and led by Donnell. Transparency is an issue in this recall campaign as well; Vuittonet walked out of a September executive session because he said his four colleagues were breaking open meeting law.
The next election for Vuittonet will not be a recall or re-election. Instead, it comes Friday. He’s running for president of the Idaho School Boards Association in a contentious three-man race.
John Menter was the heir apparent to lead the ISBA’s 500-plus members but he lost his seat with the Troy School District. He was later appointed to the Moscow Charter board and decided to run for president.
Vuittonet is challenging Menter because “the membership is not ready” for a president from a charter school. Only last year were charter school trustees given full voting membership in the ISBA.
Boise School District board member A.J. Balukoff has also entered the race.
“I think it will be difficult for a West Ada trustee to win the election, and even if (Vuittonet) does, it will be very difficult for him to be an effective president,” Balukoff said.
Vuittonet isn’t swayed by. He touts his seven years on the ISBA’s government affairs committee and service as a region chair and vice chair.
All five West Ada board members are scheduled to attend the annual ISBA convention this week in Coeur d’Alene. Vuittonet will have to rely on getting votes from his statewide connections because he likely won’t get the support West Ada trustees. In fact, Joki was wearing an election sticker in support of Balukoff on the first day of the conference.
“I’ll respect the will of our membership,” Vuittonet said. “Whatever happens, I will continue to give 100 percent.
“My wife tells me I don’t have to keep doing this. But to me, the kids are worth it. As long as I have something to give, I’ll do it as long as patrons will allow me to do it.”