Kim Rost’s license plate reads “SPICY K,” a nickname from her husband that she’s grown to embrace.
“I tend to get worked up over certain issues,” Rost recently told EdNews at the Nampa Public Library.
Case in point: While serving as chair of the Nampa School Board, Rost disputed Superintendent Paula Kellerer’s decision to hand out bonuses to all district staff members — including Kellerer herself — without board consent.
The issue blew up, put the superintendent and trustee at odds and fueled a campaign to recall Rost.
The bonuses ultimately stuck and Rost kept her seat, but the fallout underscored the blowback board members can face for asking questions and expecting answers. It also galvanized Rost’s reputation as a local trustee, mother and businesswoman who influences one of Idaho’s largest school districts.
“She will unapologetically challenge you, but will do so respectfully,” said Brian McGourty, Rost’s predecessor on the board.
‘I learned as I went’
Rost’s history of questioning things in Nampa schools predates her time as a trustee.
After growing up in Reno, Nev., and earning a structural engineering degree at the University of Southern California, she and her husband, Cordy, settled in Nampa with their three children. He purchased a local packaging company. She ran a structural engineering firm out of their home.
A smaller city and smaller schools appealed to the Rosts, but K-12 funding cuts tied to the Great Recession eventually hampered the experience. One issue for Rost: overcrowding in her then-third-grader’s classroom.
On Aug. 19, 2011, as the newly established leader of the local PTA, she emailed several Idaho lawmakers, including then-Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde and now-U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher, with a request.
“Having 36 kids is not moving in the right direction,” she wrote, asking the legislators to reach out to Nampa’s CFO at the time and ask him to “scrape” from another part of the budget to hire another third-grade teacher.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Rost said of her early involvement in the district. “I learned as I went.”
Yet her efforts paid off. Later in the school year, Nampa hired another third-grade teacher.
Becky Cantrell, a fellow Nampa parent and friend of Rost’s, said she wasn’t around when Rost began pushing for another teacher, but said “that sounds like Kim.”
“She’s not someone who complains and then stays idle,” Cantrell added. “She knows how to use the resources she has to keep a pulse on everything.”
From parent to trustee
By 2012, Rost was at the forefront of parental involvement, balancing life as a parent, engineer and co-owner of ZoRoCo Packaging while heading the local PTA and providing pro-bono structural input on Nampa’s facilities.
Then, a fiscal crisis hit. A $5.3 million budget shortfall forced Nampa to close an aging elementary school, outsource janitorial services and leave at least 50 teaching jobs in the dark. In 2013-14, the district imposed 14 furlough days and by July 2014, trustees had named four superintendents within two years.
The crisis sparked community blowback and turnover on the school board. Rost, who saw an opportunity to up her involvement, entered the race to replace the trustee in her zone. She lost to McGourty.
Despite her first failed attempt, the shortfall opened Rost’s eyes to the school board’s oversight role. The budget mishap may have begun with the administration, she told EdNews, but trustees failed to catch it.
The failed attempt also impressed McGourty enough to garner his endorsement for Rost to him years later. In May 2017, Rost beat out two other candidates to nab the seat.
A month later, Kellerer stepped in as superintendent, Nampa’s fifth in seven years.
Rost described her first few years working with Kellerer as “great,” adding that she supported hiring the former dean of Northwest Nazarene University’s College of Adult and Graduate Studies for the position.
Things changed after Rost moved into her role as board chair, she said, and issues began to simmer by the time COVID-19 prompted a shift to fully online learning in Nampa.
A battle over bonuses
Working with Kellerer to set board meeting agendas grew especially difficult during the pandemic, Rost claims, because the superintendent pushed back on getting health professionals to share their expertise during board meetings. (Kellerer did not respond to questions for this story, but Nampa spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck referenced numerous health professionals who addressed the board during the pandemic.)
Issues between the women went public when EdNews obtained emails, dated Nov. 6, detailing concerns Rost and Nampa trustee Allison Westfall expressed over some $1.7 million in bonuses, including $3,824 for Kellerer, that the superintendent had OK’d to recognize staff’s extra work during the pandemic.
The problem: Trustees did not approve the taxpayer obligation before it was spent.
Westfall to Rost: “(H)ave we given our executive the power to increase her pay without Board approval?”
Rost to Westfall: “I am extremely concerned about this and would like to understand to the extent of is this a fireable offense.”
Rost eventually joined other trustees in unanimously ratifying the bonuses. “What were we supposed to do, take them back after they’d been paid?” she told EdNews.
Issues culminated on Nov. 17, when community members swarmed a closed-door board meeting in which Kellerer’s actions were rumored to be the focus.
A push to recall Rost for questioning Kellerer’s decisions further drove a wedge between the trustee and administration.
Rost handily staved off the recall attempt in May, with just 27 percent of voters supporting the effort — a vindicating number for Rost.
But the damage was done.
“She still won’t look at me,” said Rost, whose term on the board expires in December.
‘The buck stops with the board’
Rost said trustees questioning the way a superintendent hands out bonuses — or spends taxpayer dollars — is necessary. “That’s your job. The buck stops with the board.”
McGourty agreed. He praised Kellerer’s leadership during the pandemic and in the years rebounding from issues tied to the 2012 budget shortfall, but he sided with Rost in terms of questioning the bonuses.
Ultimately, that’s the job of a trustee, he said.
Questioning things isn’t always the popular approach, acknowledged Rost, who views school boards on a spectrum — from establishing accountability to “rubber stamping” administrative decisions.
Yet what some perceive as establishing accountability, others may view as an attack.
“We are concerned about (Rost’s) perceived targeting of Dr. Paula Kellerer and the district office leadership who have worked tirelessly during these unprecedented times,” recall petitioners wrote on Rost’s recall ballot. (Petitioners also accused Rost of lacking leadership, ignoring and “not representing the majority” of people in her zone.)
Not asking tough questions can avoid a conflict, Rost acknowledged, but it’s not the best option for K-12 stakeholders.
“We’re not here to avoid conflict,” she said, crediting her years running a business of some 500 employees with her husband for helping her get comfortable lobbing questions rooted in accountability. “I just don’t see confrontation as a bad thing.”
Rost said she doesn’t plan to change her approach or style anytime soon, but where it plays out could change when her term ends at the end of this year.
“I’ll just say I’ve been approached about other possible leadership positions,” she said.