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Investigation Of School Budgets Sought Phone Message Raises Questions About Superintendent, Special Education Director

Copyright The Spokesman-Review

A message left on an answering machine by a school administrator has sparked new questions about how he and other officials are handling their budgets.

The teacher’s union is calling for an investigation of Superintendent Max Harrell, Special Education Director Bob Howman and other administrators to see if money was misused or budgets altered.

The message Howman left for a staffer on his office answering machine is being turned over to the Bonner County prosecutor, the state Department of Education and the Idaho Education Association. The tape was given anonymously to the teachers’ union and The Idaho Spokesman-Review.

“I think there is a lot more out there than we can glean from this tape. We want a full investigation,” said Joan Head, president of the Bonner County Education Association. “I took it (the tape) to say they are messing around with federal funds… We think this is very serious.”

Neither Howman nor Harrell would return phone calls Friday. School district attorney Charles Dodson had no comment.

Howman has been under fire from teachers and patrons for running up a $180,000 deficit this year. About $79,000 was spent to send one student to a drug treatment center in Montana.

Spending thousands of dollars on one student has parents and teachers upset, because the district is in debt, students lack classroom materials, and Harrell has called for a 50 percent cap on next year’s extra curricular activities. The district also is being criticized for having too many highly paid administrators.

A call Howman made about his department’s finances was recorded on a school district answering machine this week. The call was made immediately after teachers met to discuss a vote of no confidence in the district’s administration.

Howman said, “we are going to be pretty heavily … we are going to be very heavily audited,” according to the tape. Also during the call, Howman said he talked to Harrell and school attorney Dodson about what to do.

The plan, Howman said, was to make sure he could show the bill for sending the student to a treatment center was paid with federal money and that the central office reports matched his financial reports.

“Get out our requisitions and make sure our requisitions correspond with our expenditures report. If not, we need to get back to Steve (Battenschlag, the district business manager) and Max (Harrell) and straighten it out in their books,” Howman said on the answering machine tape. “If we don’t straighten this out we are all going to be in deep (trouble), big time.”

Howman hasn’t returned repeated phone calls or responded to faxes sent to his office during the past three days. Harrell also did not return calls seeking comment on the answering machine message.

Two school board members listened to the taped call on Friday and did not dispute that it was indeed Howman’s message. However, neither school board member considered the tape a major issue.

“I really don’t see a problem,” said trustee Blaine Stevens. “Anyone in charge of a department would put the same message out if he was going to be audited. They are not changing the books at the central office.”

Board chairman Rebecca Hawkins said she has some concerns about the special education department but that Howman’s taped call was not evidence of wrongdoing.

“It sounds like his concern is things weren’t done correctly or how it should have been done in the first place and he is making an effort to clean it up,” she said. “He’s asking someone, ‘Let’s make sure everything is in order, if not, change it and get it in the right order.”’

Hawkins planned to discuss the issue with the superintendent, but take no other action. The state Department of Education has started investigating how the district spends its money because of complaints, so it can look at the books, she said.

“The board are lay people. The Department of Education is going to know more about it than we are.”

Both trustees said people are jumping to conclusions and overreacting. They were more upset the student in the treatment center was named on the tape. Hawkins did acknowledge, however, that Howman’s budget is short about $200,000 worth of federal money.

In October, Howman was supposed to send his budget and a request for federal money to the state of Idaho. Those documents were not sent until this month, about six months late.

Howman had to take money out of the general fund to keep his department operating because he delayed filing his reports. The federal money, administered by the state, is contingent on a budget review.

Battenschlag said Howman’s budget recently was sent back by the state because it was incorrect.

Other teachers in the district said Howman has not met other state requirements. Some students referred to his department have gone nearly 200 days without being evaluated. The state time frame for evaluating a student is between 30 and 90 days.

Hawkins is aware of the delays. Additional staff was hired in the special education department to deal with the problem. Those staff members’ salaries added to the deficit in the special education department, she said.

The district has been under a hiring freeze and Head questioned why special education was allowed to add more staff and go deeper into debt. Teachers in the district have overcrowded classrooms and are not getting extra help, she added.

School trustees and administrators insist they are bound by federal law to service special education students. If the needs are not being met, parents of students will sue the district, Stevens said.

“What makes special education different? Aren’t we legally bound to provide education for everyone in the district equally?,” Head countered. “Why couldn’t every parent sue to get more money for the classroom their child is in?”

, DataTimes



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