West Ada’s high-profile, high-pressure job search

Under any circumstances, running the West Ada School District is a challenging job.

West Ada has grown accustomed to operating on a shoestring; in 2014-15, its per-pupil spending of $6,744 ranked No. 101 among Idaho’s 115 school districts. Teacher retention is an ongoing battle; on average, the neighboring Boise district pays teachers at least $5,000 a year more. With enrollment at 37,349 — and growing — the state’s largest district will almost certainly need to seek another multimillion-dollar bond issue to bankroll building needs.

On top of all of those business-as-usual challenges, the next superintendent will take over a district in discord. After sparring with trustees for months, former Superintendent Linda Clark resigned on Oct. 23, saying she was the victim of a “witch hunt.” Trustees declined to accept Clark’s resignation, choosing to fire her instead. Now, the district’s five trustees face two competing recall campaigns.

All of which makes for a high-profile vacancy and a high-pressure hire.

An open-ended, ambitious timetable

Trustees will step up the superintendent’s search Thursday night. They have scheduled a closed-door meeting to begin screening applications.

Tean Dean
All applications for the West Ada superintendent’s vacancy are going through School Board chairwoman Tina Dean. This week, even her colleagues were unsure how many people have applied for the job.

It’s unclear exactly how many applications the district has in hand — even to the trustees themselves. In separate interviews Wednesday, trustees Russell Joki and Mike Vuittonet said they had no details. Trustee Julie Madsen pegged the figure at about a half dozen. All the applications are going through board chairwoman Tina Dean, who did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment.

The district’s official timetable is open-ended. There is no deadline attached to the job posting, which went live on the district’s website on Nov. 20. However, the notice also leaves open “the possibility of a selection before the end of the year.”

Were that to happen, the district would have a permanent successor lined up barely two months after Clark’s abrupt resignation.

Russell Joki
Despite the public feuding between trustees and former West Ada superintendent Linda Clark, School Board member Russell Joki says he is “encouraged” about the search for a successor.

Joki hopes the trustees can at least get some finalists in for in-person interviews before Christmas. Site visits would include interviews with staff, and open sessions that would allow patrons to meet the finalists.

Madsen isn’t sure exactly how much trustees will be able to get done before the holidays. If trustees aren’t bowled over by any of the early applicants, she said, the screening process will likely spill over into 2016. “Not a lot gets accomplished in that Christmas to New Year’s time,” she said.

What does the community want?

While trustees begin reading through the early applications, they are also collecting public comment. A third listening session on the superintendent’s search is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday at Star City Hall.

Trustees heard from about a dozen patrons at a listening session earlier this week, the Idaho Statesman reported. A pair of surveys drew a much wider response: more than 1,400 people responded to an online community survey, while more than 500 staffers filled out a second survey.

Both surveys placed a premium on classroom experience. When patrons were asked to list important qualifications for West Ada’s next superintendent, 84 percent put teaching experience on the checklist. Meanwhile, only 38 percent considered past superintendent’s experience a priority, while 51 percent placed business management on the checklist.

Mike Vuittonet
Mike Vuittonet, the senior member of the West Ada School Board, has supported Linda Clark in her disputes with trustees. He says a new superintendent would “need to come with their eyes wide open.”

Madsen said she was “pleasantly surprised” to see patrons emphasize classroom experience over business background.

Vuittonet, Clark’s one remaining supporter on the board, was struck to see patrons place a high premium on communications skills. Eighty-two percent of patrons said the district wants a strong communicator in the superintendent’s office. He’s not sure whether to read that as a criticism of Clark, who had no shortage of allies and detractors after 11 years on the job.

“They want to see the superintendent more,” Vuittonet said. “(But) it’s a very, very large district.”

But who will apply?

It’s a boilerplate component in any job interview: The tables are turned and the applicant gets a chance to ask questions about the vacancy.

That figures to be particularly interesting in West Ada, given the highly public feuding that led up to Clark’s departure after 37 years in the district.

Trustees could have to answer plenty pointed questions about recent events. There’s the dispute over extending Clark’s $143,475-a-year contract, for example, and the blowback over her July appointment to the State Board of Education. Then there are the disputed circumstances surrounding Clark’s departure; she contends she was asked to resign, but urged to stay on the job while the district successfully sought a $28 million supplemental property tax levy.

Julie Madsen
West Ada trustee Julie Madsen doesn’t believe recent controversies will hurt the district’s search for a new superintendent. She believes professional administrators will more closely consider other factors — such as the community, the compensation package and the challenge of a new job.

Vuittonet says trustees will have to be honest about the recent history. Madsen says trustees will have to acknowledge the past — she says Clark and trustees were a “poor fit” — while looking toward the future. Joki says the recent history creates an opportunity to hire a “change agent” who can focus on student learning.

But given recent history, who’s going to want the job?

Joki isn’t worried — especially about candidates who are scared off. “The candidates that don’t apply, I’m glad they aren’t applying. It’s a form of self-assessment.”

Vuittonet, however, is worried about the potential applicant pool. It underscores the need for trustees to set aside their differences. “This is a hire that we need to get right.”