On his first day as West Bonner’s interim superintendent, Joe Kren placed a crucifix on the wall, took out the trash, sat at his desk and started fixing problems.
And there’s no shortage of problems.
School board trustees hired Spokane-based Eide Bailly in July to conduct a forensic audit that isn’t done yet, which will likely cause the state to withhold an estimated $1.5 million in “school support payments” this month, according to district financial documents. The financial shortfall is temporary but it’s another setback for a district besieged by months of controversy.
Until the matter is resolved, Kren said the district will cover the shortfall with the general fund. The state’s withholding stems from the district’s unfinished financial audit. The accounting firm handling their 2022 audit was unwilling to start working on it until the forensic audit was complete. The withheld payment could be distributed once their financial audit is finished and submitted.
Eide Bailly is scheduled to provide trustees with an update on the forensic audit Wednesday at their board meeting.
Superintendent Debbie Critchfield said in a statement, “Staff at the State Department of Education have been in extensive contact with officials in the West Bonner district for several months. Since his appointment by local trustees, superintendent Kren has reached out to me and requested that the department continue to offer input and guidance to help the district navigate its current challenges. Department staff have been in touch with him and will meet with him next week.”
Kren carries around a yellow notepad with lists of items that need to be addressed — he’s on page seven.
After consulting with his wife, he decided that if the board asks him to step in, “I will commit to it. This place means too much to me. I’ve only been here for a short time. But the people that I have worked with in this district, I will gladly put up against anybody else out there.”
Kren, who has an Idaho superintendent’s certificate, was hired on a 90-day contract to lead West Bonner. Now, he and trustees are tasked with getting the district back on track in the wake of superintendent Branden Durst’s four-month tenure and the aftermath of two recalled trustees. Kren brings 22 years administrative experience to the job — 13 as superintendent and four as principal.
“I’m hopeful that the hiring of an experienced and legally qualified superintendent will bring the district the stability it needs,” Critchfield said.
Last Tuesday, West Bonner voters retained incumbent trustees Maragret Hall and Troy Reinbold but they did not re-elect Carlyn Barton. When the five-person board convenes in January for the first time, the trustees will be Hall, Reinbold, Kathy Nash, Paul Turco and Ann Yount. Turco and Yount were appointed to serve out the term of the two recalled trustees.
“It’s time to come together,” Kren said, about moving past the dysfunction and division of the past year.
Topping Kren’s priority list are their compliance deficiencies.
“We are out of compliance on several fronts,” Kren said, describing the problems as fiduciary, statutory and district policies.
On the fiduciary side, “one of the big things is getting the audit done. We need to take care of the forensic audit, as well as our financial audit, and those are two key issues that need to be taken care of and addressed before a lot of the other fiscal issues can be addressed,” he said.
According to comments made at their previous board meeting, the audit is delayed because the district is unable to obtain financial statements from its bank.
“I welcome it being done so that we can move on,” he said. “I know that our board … has said we welcome the forensic audit. So what that tells me is they welcome whatever the results of the forensic audit are. And if there are findings to be addressed, then we will address them.”
To cover expenses while the audit is being completed, they will use the fund balance, which is about $2.9 million, according to district financial documents. “So the clock is ticking. we have to get this financial audit done, so that those funds can be released,” Kren said.
In Kren’s opinion, the board will have to consider running a supplemental levy. The next election opportunity is in May. He will also recommend that the district extend his contract through the end of the school year. His current contract ends March 20. To see a copy of that contract, use this link.
While there are plenty of administrative challenges ahead for Kren, he attempted to improve morale from day one.
“My amazing bride made a whole bunch of food for folks. It was waiting for them when they got here that morning, because I got here before everybody else. And as luck would have it, the administrators had a pre-scheduled meeting here at the district office. So I was able to meet with my admin and when they came in, the food was waiting for them.
“In order to address morale, I have been in every building and probably 90% of the classrooms. I’ve talked to everybody I can and I’ve told them how much I appreciate their trust in me. And I’m here to champion their cause. And every opportunity I’ve had to do that privately and publicly, I’ve been doing that,” Kren said.