Embattled Superintendent Max Harrell won’t head Bonner County’s schools after Christmas. Trustees paid Harrell $222,000 to pack his things, tear up his two-year contract and leave the district immediately.
The surprise move was basically a forced resignation - albeit a handsome one - to try to cure problems of distrust and lack of leadership in the district.
“The majority of the board of trustees believes the differences that developed between them and the superintendent made it imperative that a change be made immediately in the superintendent’s office,” trustees said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
The board already unanimously voted to replace Harrell with Roy Rummler, a principal at Priest River Lamanna High School. Rummler was given a contract through the 1998-99 school year.
Harrell will be paid off over two years, getting lump sums of $111,000. In the agreement, he is barred from suing the district, and the district cannot hold him liable for any actions while he was employed here. Harrell was hired in 1995 and earned $80,000 annually.
Trustees and Harrell issued a vague joint statement saying they had serious differences in educational philosophy. The agreement forbids either side from commenting further about the buyout.
The superintendent was under fire and scrutiny for months. Trustees even consulted with the state Department of Education to see if it could fire Harrell for mismanaging the district.
Harrell’s been blamed for much of the controversy here. Teachers cast a vote of no confidence in him last school year. A state report also criticized his leadership, communication and budgeting skills.
The district’s reputation has sunk so low, a group of community leaders said last month they have trouble recruiting employees to Sandpoint. Newcomers don’t want to enroll their children in this troublesome district - one that’s in debt, has dilapidated buildings, no curriculum and sagging morale.
“If the board has made this move, I would have to take the position they had good reason for it,” Curt Hecker said of Harrell’s removal. Hecker is a spokesman for Citizens for Quality Education. The group formed to help the district deal with its mounting problems.
Concerns from teachers and residents convinced a team of state educators to review how the district was being run last spring. The team heaped much of its criticism on Harrell.
The superintendent, they said, submitted an illegal budget to the school board that put the district $1 million in debt. The budget had to be revised by the school district business manager.
Harrell angered many parents and teachers two years ago when he tried to demote popular Sandpoint High School Principal A.C. Woolnough. Harrell wanted to move Woolnough to a teaching post, citing philosophical differences. Residents picketed the central office to protest the move. Woolnough has remained as principal and is suing the district.
The teacher’s union said Harrell had to be removed before any healing and progress could take place in the district.
“This is a positive step toward improving the current system,” union president Enid Trenholm said. “There will be different comments from all corners of the community, but I’m sure the board deliberated and thought this through thoroughly before they did it.”
Teachers threatened to strike in September after Harrell hired an out-of-state team to negotiate a new contract with them. Board members eventually stepped in and settled the nearly 2-year-old dispute in one night.
Harrell had a penchant for staying cloistered in his office, according to the state review of the district. His noticeable absence at school functions and community events even turned into a joke. Teachers and residents turned the popular “Where’s Waldo?” phrase into “Where’s Harrell?”
Harrell was not in the office Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. In the agreement he signed, he noted a strained and unworkable relationship with some trustees. Staying with the district could ruin his professional reputation and already has caused him health problems, the settlement said.
Harrell’s original contract with the district was supposed to end this school year. That would have made a buyout of his contract unnecessary.
But Harrell was given a controversial two-year contract extension in July. It was approved by several outgoing trustees, including Rebecca Hawkins and Bill Osmunson. Voters, disgruntled with how the district was being run, booted those two off the board. But before new trustees were seated, Harrell’s contract was renewed until the year 2000.
Tuesday’s decision to dump Harrell was approved by four trustees. Teresa Asbill voted against it. She was one of the board members who earlier voted to extend Harrell’s contract.
Trustee Blaine Stevens abstained, essentially siding with the decision to pay off Harrell and remove him.
Trustee Jerry Owens said Rummler is well qualified to lead the district for the next year. “He has a vision that goes along with the board; to put the kids’ education first,” Owens said. “The district will be moving ahead and not standing stagnant.”
Trustees plan to launch a national search for a new superintendent. They agreed to wait a year, however, because the district may be split in two. Residents will vote next year on whether to make Sandpoint and Priest River separate school districts.
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