Maverick school trustee is keeping campaign promises

If you are one who happens to think that the education establishment needs to be shaken up, then Dr. Russell Joki is your kind of guy.

Three years ago, he filed a lawsuit against the governor, the state superintendent of public instruction, the Legislature and school districts, claiming they were violating Idahoans’ constitutional right for a free public education. Three months ago, he was elected as a trustee in the West Ada School District, and is causing his share of trouble for a longtime superintendent.

On the other side are community leaders, who are working to recall Joki and three other school board members after they voided a contract extension for Dr. Linda Clark on the grounds that the action by the previous board was taken in violation of Idaho’s open-meeting laws. The heart of the effort could well be labeled as “removal for general principles.” Clark, who has been superintendent for a decade, is highly regarded in the community.

Time will tell if Clark supporters can take Joki off the school board, but it’s highly unlikely they will get rid of him. Leaving quietly is not in his nature.

Joki grew up in Kellogg and Coeur d’Alene, where he graduated in 1964 and taught years later. His father and mother, Alex (a miner) and Katherine, did not finish high school, but raised four boys who finished college. Joki’s parents are gone, but their influence has been a part of him for the 70 years of his life.

“They were very strong people – always standing up for us, and themselves,” Joki said. “They had a hard life, but they were involved. They told us to always speak our minds.”

Joki says his parents also inspired him academically. “An educated person is unafraid to speak his mind, and unafraid to take up an issue,” he said.

He’s also unfraid to “write back,” as he did in response to an Idaho Statesman editorial, which suggested that West Ada trustees should take a “more measured, collaborative mission that began with fact-finding and a listening tour,” before taking drastic actions.

Joki fired back saying the board has standing, “when it discloses hidden contracts, cost overruns, costly central office positions, and questions the decisions and practices of the previous school board.” The trustees’ only agenda, Joki says, is “transparency and the refusal to be a rubber stamp school board.”

The board members are hardly novices in the education field. Joki is a former longtime teacher and school superintendent; one current teacher and two other former teachers also sit on the board. The only non-educator on the board is a Stanford-trained physician. So there’s no issue with IQ levels. The new board members, including Joki, campaigned on the promise that they would provide more scrutiny and accountability, and they have delivered.

The recall effort, Joki says, “is from people who are disgruntled by not getting their way anymore. It hurts two groups – kids and teachers. The difference between this board and the previous board is, the previous board approved almost everything with very little questioning. I think officials, once elected, are sent there to ask questions. There were no secrets about what I was interested in; people knew what they were going to get.”

He fears that the controversy also diverts attention from a school levy vote on Nov. 3 that, if approved, would provide the district with $28 million in funding over two years. Without voter approval, he said, “the general fund budget will go into freefall.”

Meanwhile, his lawsuit against the state has been whittled down by a court order. It was ruled that Joki had no standing to sue state officials and other school districts, so the scope of his complaint was confined to West Ada.

“The lawsuit has been there for three years, and we had a hearing that lasted for three hours,” Joki said. “The suit had two complaints. First, the Legislature has not met its constitutional duty to fund a uniform, thorough and free education. The second was that any school district charging fees as a way to make up the money is violating the constitutional requirement for a free education.”

Joki intends to come out as a winner even if the judge rules against his lawsuit against West Ada. His goal is to eliminate all fees and he’s confident the board can find the money to accomplish that.

“I hope I’m on the school board come January and February,” he said.

Chuck Malloy is a native Idahoan and long-time political reporter and editorial writer. He is a former political editor with the Post Register of Idaho Falls and a former editorial writer with the Idaho Statesman. Contact Malloy at [email protected]