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State Reviews How District Spends Money Lawmakers Ask For Investigation Into Bonner County Schools

FOR THE RECORD (Friday, April 18, 1997): Correction Wrong salary: The salary for Max Harrell, Bonner County schools superintendent, increased $2,500 to $75,000 annually. As part of his contract, Harrell’s salary will increase again in July to $77,500. A story in Thursday’s paper erroneously reported the amount of the raise.

FOR THE RECORD (Saturday, April 19, 1997): Correction Wrong figures: The salary for Max Harrell, Bonner County schools superintendent, is $75,000. It will increase in July to $77,500. A story in Thursday’s newspaper incorrectly reported the amount of the raise.

A state investigation is under way to scrutinize how the Bonner County School District spends its money.

Two legislators asked the state Department of Education to review the district after complaints about financial and policy decisions.

Rep. John Campbell and Sen. Shawn Keough - both Sandpoint Republicans - said they were misinformed and stymied by school officials while seeking answers and information. It’s time for an impartial review, they said.

“I attempted on several occasions to ask board members and central office personnel for answers,” Keough said. “In some cases, questions were answered fairly; in other cases, unfortunately, my questions were met with hostility, anger and defensiveness.”

The district faces more than a $500,000 budget deficit. To help control the debt, Superintendent Max Harrell requested extracurricular program budgets be cut in half next year until it’s clear how much money the district has coming from the state.

While cuts in sports, drama and choir programs are being considered, school administrators want a 3.75 percent salary increase. A cap on extracurricular programs would save about $180,000, while the raises, if approved, would cost the district about $72,000. Harrell’s salary recently was increased from $70,000 to $75,000 annually.

The district has been criticized for paying exorbitant administrative salaries while neglecting basic needs, such as shoveling snow from school building roofs. Two roofs collapsed this past winter.

“There is a real concern about how the district is spending its money and if it’s spending it in the right areas,” said Campbell.

Jim Smith, deputy of finance for the Department of Education, has visited the district and expects to issue a report in May. Harrell said he welcomes Smith’s analysis.

Campbell said he was briefed on Smith’s initial findings that said the district is top-heavy with administrators and overspends what the state allocates for administrative salaries. The district’s special education and vocational education directors both earn $55,000 annually while two assistant superintendents earn $65,000 and $52,550.

Harrell said it’s true the district spends more than the state allocates for administrators, but it also overspends on teacher salaries. There may be just three or four districts in the state, he said, that pay teachers and administrators only what the state allots.

Part of the district’s deficit, about $220,000 of it, was due to increased wages and benefits for employees. Another $180,000 of the deficit came from the special education department, which went way over budget, said Business Manager Steve Battenschlag.

That cost overrun has patrons scratching their heads, wondering how one department budget can get so out of balance and go unchecked.

“We need to look at where dollars are being spent right now and what the district is doing to trim other budgets throughout the district,” said Sandpoint High School Athletic Director Jack Dyck.

He fears Harrell’s 50 percent cap on next year’s extracurricular activities will gut sports programs - programs that he says keep kids in school and out of trouble.

“As a patron and someone with kids in school I want to know why the district is so over-budget now and if those areas are being managed correctly,” Dyck said.

A contingent of parents and teachers are battling Harrell’s 50 percent activities cap.

In the past, departments have been asked to cap their budgets. It keeps spending in check while the district awaits its state and federal money. Once the money arrives, the cap typically is lifted.

“We are trying to put together a budget for next year and asking departments to be conservative in case there needs to be cuts,” said school board chairman Rebecca Hawkins. “We are in debt and don’t have the funds to maintain services at the level we need to educate our children. We have to either reduce our expenses or increase our revenue to balance the budget and this is the first step.”

, DataTimes


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