A half-million dollar deficit and proposed cuts in extracurricular activities have angry parents and teachers scrutinizing the Bonner County School District budget.
The bottom line, they say, is that administrators with high salaries and pet projects are getting money that should be spent on kids.
“When our superintendent (Max Harrell) says there is no money to give teachers a raise and hires a negotiator for $14,500 - what is that telling the taxpayers,” said Joe Mire, a member of Caring Citizens for Kids and Community, a newly formed group to fight cuts in extracurricular programs.
“We give our money to educate kids and we don’t believe our money is going to our kids,” Mire said.
Of all of Idaho’s school districts, Bonner County ranks 92nd in what it spends per student on education. At the same time, the district has the 10th highest paid superintendent in the state. Harrell earns $75,000 annually and the district pays another $5,228 toward his retirement.
Other district administrators are seeking a 3-3/4 percent raise, while teachers have been told there is no money for their raises.
“It seems like they are asking the kids and teachers to take a cut, but I don’t see the administration offering to freeze their salaries. That seems backward to me,” said Debbie Jeffres, who has two kids in school. “Our school district is supposed to be for and about kids. It doesn’t seem that way right now.”
Harrell said his call for a cap on activities budgets is being blown out of proportion. No cuts are planned and the problem is not how much the district spends but the lack of funding from the state and taxpayers.
“The problem in our budget isn’t expenses, it’s there isn’t enough to spend,” he said. “We have a very small pot of money, which is shrinking, to do all the things people want done. What is damaging about that is we wind up in competition with each other rather than putting energy into solving the problem.”
Teachers and parents disagree. They want to see cuts in the number of administrators and their salaries before the district sticks its hand out for more tax money. The State Department of Education is already investigating where the school district spends its money.
A preliminary review showed Bonner County is top-heavy with overpaid administrators. A Department of Education report showed 10 directors or administrators in the district. That is double the number in the Coeur d’Alene District, a school system with at least 3,000 more students than Bonner County.
Superintendent Harrell disagrees with the state calculation even though the information was provided by Bonner County. The state report, he said, includes five athletic directors so the district actually has only five administrators in the central office. One of those administrators is listed as part time but earns $22,000. The five positions draw a combined salary of nearly $250,000, with area director Ed Sansom earning $65,000. Sansom’s post is similar to an assistant superintendent, but he is not certified by the state to hold the title of assistant superintendent.
“I was surprised when I saw the amount of the administrative salaries,” said Jeffres. “It really seems out of whack, and to balance the budget on the back of kids in extracurricular programs seems wrong.”
Parents and the teachers’ union have combed the district budget to take Harrell and the school board to task and point out questionable expenditures.
“We don’t see any of this as money going into the classroom,” teachers’ union president Joan Head said. She had harsh words for Harrell and other high-paid administrators who she said are rarely in the schools.
“If a teacher didn’t meet Max (Harrell) on the first day of school they wouldn’t know him. He doesn’t go into the buildings or attend activities,” Head said.
Harrell said teachers and parents are tossing out a lot of unrelated issues and stirring up a pot of controversy. “People are being emotional and not objective. It’s unfortunate so much controversy has been stirred up over this,” he said.
Harrell insists he has not ordered 50 percent cuts in extracurricular activities. He simply wanted departments to come up with conservative budgets.
Mire, who has three children in school, said Harrell is playing word games. A cap is the same as a cut. Mire met with Harrell and was told a levy is the only way to save extracurricular activities next year. Mire called it extortion, a way to get taxpayers to give the school district more money.
“Our message to Max Harrell is we will not stand for a levy by extortion. We are saying spend our money better than you have been,” Mire said. “If Max Harrell wants a laptop computer and remodeled office he can go fund raise for it. That is what he is telling us and our kids to do while he is taking a raise.”
Mire and his group are having a town meeting Monday at 7 p.m. at Sandpoint High School to discuss the activities cap.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Overstaffed and overpaid?
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SCHOOL COMPLAINTS Parents and teachers have voiced several complaints about the Bonner County School District’s administrative spending. Complaints include: The district bought four laptop computers, costing more than $12,500, for central office administrators including one part-timer. The special education budget was overspent by about $180,000. The district paid between $60,000 and $80,000 to send one special education student to a private treatment center in Montana. (District administrators and the teachers’ union disagree over whether the district was required to pay for the student’s treatment.) The district paid a speaker about $20,000 to conduct teacher workshops. The speaker spent about eight days in the district. The district’s legal budget increased by $75,000 mainly because of attorney fees due to personnel problems within the district. A professional negotiator was hired in March for $14,500 to deal with teachers and free Harrell to conduct school district business.