The troubled Bonner County School District flunked budgeting 101, has a poorly run special education department and a superintendent who should be out in the schools instead of cloistered in his office, a state report said.
A Department of Education advisory team spent more than a month scrutinizing the district. It arrived after residents, lawmakers and school officials requested a review of how the district is run and spends its money.
The result was a harsh 28-page report presented to the school board and public Tuesday night.
“I think it’s a very fair report and it doesn’t whitewash anything. It doesn’t put anyone or any department in a very good light,” said newly elected trustee Jerry Owens. The state noted a major problem is the district has no districtwide curriculum. That creates confusion, communication and budget problems in the district’s 16 schools.
“What the state is telling us is we don’t know where we are going or where we are trying to get. And it’s true,” Owens said.
The district now faces a $159,000 deficit, teachers cast a vote of no confidence in Superintendent Max Harrell, and one trustee is suing the district and state for not providing students here a proper education.
The state advisory team met privately with school board members Monday. Harrell was not allowed to attend that meeting but was given a separate review. The school board and about 100 residents were still going over the report late Tuesday.
Among other things, the state said the district spends too much on legal fees, $110,000 last year. It also regularly spends more money than it receives, and does not have a budget process that involves the community.
“The district has a history of spending beyond its means and does not appear to be overly concerned about the deficit spending,” the report said. “In fact there appears to be no model in place that would allow parents, teachers, patrons, businesses or any other interested group to make recommendations concerning the budget….”
The team advised Harrell a month ago his proposed budget was illegal. It created a nearly $1 million deficit for the district. That budget was eventually rejected by the school board.
Harrell was also criticized for staying in his office instead of being at schools, meeting with teachers and available to the public.
“Superintendent Harrell needs to be in the schools and community as much as possible, even at the risk of not accomplishing some other task,” the report said.
The team noted communication with the schools and community was “virtually nonexistent.”
A large part of the report focused on the special education department run by embattled director Bob Howman. He’s been under fire by patrons and teachers for months for over-spending his budget and paying $91,000 to send one student to a drug treatment program in Montana.
The state said Howman’s reorganization of the department is inefficient, costly and violates state guidelines. Students being referred to special services are supposed to be evaluated within 60 days. The evaluations now exceed that time line from 2 to 129 days.
“The district must take immediate steps to come into compliance,” the report said.
“The advisory team would like to see this community come together to heal the wounds of the past and present so they can make the schools in Bonner County the very best they can be for … the children.”