In the past four years, the Bonner County School District has gone through three superintendents and plenty of troubles.
It’s still saddled with a $400,000-plus budget deficit and a credibility problem for, among other things, never building an elementary school voters anted up money for seven years ago.
It’s not an ideal district to walk in and take charge of, but the newest superintendent, Max Harrell, is optimistic.
“I don’t know a district in the country that is trouble-free,” said Harrell, 52, who has been on the job three weeks.
“I know it’s too soon to say ‘trust me,’ but I’m encouraged by the school board’s support and know things are going to be different.”
What’s most important, he says, is to not let problems drive the district to a screeching halt.
Harrell arrived in Bonner County from Dos Palos, Calif. He was an assistant superintendent there for two years.
Although he’s had little time to make his mark here, Harrell is already being touted as the one who can put Bonner County education back on track. He’s a reading specialist, and has been a classroom and special education teacher, as well as a principal and superintendent.
“We feel we have found the leadership this district really needs in its present condition,” said school board chairman Brent Baker.
“This district is a big beast and change takes time, but if the public and district will support him, it can happen.”
Harrell was selected from 25 applicants and was the unanimous choice of the board, selection committee and teacher’s union, Baker said.
A team of three board members visited his district before offering him the job. The team literally spied on Harrell, talking to residents at coffee shops in his hometown and with teachers and union members.
The day the team went to Harrell’s district office, the entire staff was wearing black armbands. Baker said they thought someone died.
“They said they were mourning because they didn’t want to lose their assistant superintendent. That was a clue right off the bat he was somebody worth having,” Baker said.
Harrell replaces interim superintendent Leonard Parenteau. Parenteau took over last year after previous superintendent Gary Barton resigned under fire. Barton was accused of harassing and threatening teachers.
“Some of that past baggage (in the district) I don’t even want to know about,” said Harrell. “It has nothing to do with me.”
He likened the district’s condition now to an ill person, saying last year was a time of little progress but a lot of internal healing.
“Now it’s time to get up and start running, maybe not at 100 miles per hour, but at least doing some jogging,” he said. “It may be painful, but I think the worst thing right now for this district would be to stand still.”
Harrell doesn’t plan on making major reforms and panicking everyone, but he does have some specific goals.
Improve the overall curriculum with an emphasis on the basics of reading and writing.
Repair the district’s dilapidated schools to make them clean and safe. Rundown schools are a statewide problem, and Harrell wants to push for state money rather than local taxes to fix problems.
Reorganize the district’s administrative office. Make outlying schools feel more a part of the district, and give schools more decision-making power, including over their own budgets.
Build Kootenai School, an elementary voters were promised several years ago and have paid $1.5 million for.
“Kootenai School is an albatross around the district’s neck until we do something about it,” Harrell said. “We need to make a decision and get something on the ground.”
Building the school will address the district’s credibility problem and relieve some crowding in other schools, he said.
Baker said the trustees and new superintendent have many of the same goals. But the main one is to rebuild community trust and get on with the business of educating kids.
“It’s real clear to me this board’s bottom line is students and that is why we are all here,” Harrell said. “I’m not looking for people to pat me on the back. That’s not my style. I want to make a personal difference or I won’t stay.”