After months of controversy, the Bonner County teachers union said Wednesday it has no confidence in Superintendent Max Harrell or central office administrators.
After polling its 330 members, the Education Association cast a nearly unanimous vote of “no confidence,” said union President Joan Head.
Members also voted to sanction the district, essentially putting it on a blacklist at colleges and employment offices nationwide. The district will be listed as an unprofessional place to work, and teachers will be discouraged from applying here.
“This is not something we wanted, but we have been pushed into a situation where we have got to do something. We feel we have a closed society of administrators and school board members,” said Head. “This is about professional behavior and how the district handles its budget. The administration has not been responsive to the educational needs of students.”
Head has been with the district for nearly 29 years and says she can’t recall sanctions ever being used and only one other vote of no confidence.
“It is a rare move, but I have never seen our membership so united,” Head said. “We want some changes.”
Superintendent Harrell called the vote an old tactic to help teachers negotiate a better contract. Teachers have worked a year without a new contract and have been told there is no money for raises.
“When you get into a tough spot in the negotiation process you do what you can to discredit the administration and the board…(and) take a vote of no confidence.” Harrell said.
Controversial issues are being brought up by the union, he said, to take the focus off their request for higher salaries and more benefits. Instead, the union has tried to “make up” stories of mismanagement and incompetence in an overstaffed central office, Harrell said.
“I’m not saying some teachers don’t have legitimate concerns but why these things are happening right now is really self-evident,” he said.
Head, however, noted that 1,300 people turned out at a recent meeting to oppose Harrell’s proposed cap on extracurricular activities. That had nothing to do with teacher contracts, she said.
“It’s true we would like to have a teacher contract, but what we are serious about is getting this district to straighten up and get money back in the classroom. That is our main priority.”
The district expects to be $544,000 in debt at year’s end and is engulfed in turmoil.
Harrell angered parents and teachers earlier with a call for a 50 percent cap on next year’s extracurricular activity budgets because money is tight.
While parents pleaded for money for the programs, administrators were handed a 2.8 percent raise and Harrell’s contract calls for him to get a $2,500 salary bump in July. Harrell is the 10th highest paid superintendent in the state, making $80,228 annually, according to the state Department of Education.
After teachers were told there was no money for them, the district hired a professional negotiator for $14,500 to handle their contract dispute.
Parents and teachers now are questioning how the district spends it’s money. They noted administrators found money to remodel their office and pay $20,000 for a speaker to conduct about eight days of teacher workshops. That fee is about the annual salary for a beginning teacher. Patrons have called for cuts in administrators and administrative salaries, instead of school programs. They even asked Harrell to freeze or reduce his salary.
“I can’t see how all of this is tied to teacher salaries,” Head said. “This is about the administration’s ability to operate the district responsibly.”
A bevy of other problems have cropped up in the district’s central office:
Because of patron complaints, the state Department of Education is investigating how the district spends it’s money.
Ed Sansom, who earns $65,000 annually as an area director in the central office, is under investigation by the state’s Professional Standards Commission for alleged ethical violations.
A recorded telephone message has prompted calls for the state attorney general to look at possible misuse of funds by Special Education Director Bob Howman. Howman is under fire for spending $180,000 over his budget. About $79,000 was used to send one student to a drug treatment center in Montana.
Howman also is more than five months late in filing federal reports for his department, meaning about $200,000 owed the district will be delayed until the paperwork is completed. If a teacher was that far behind in filing reports or doing report cards, they would be disciplined, Head said.
Harrell admits the district has problems. It’s because of inadequate funding from the state and local taxpayers, not mismanagement in the central office.
“A simple vote of no confidence is not problem solving,” he said.
The sanction will be imposed by the Idaho Education Association, which voted to support the Bonner County teachers. The sanction can’t be good for the local economy, said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jonathan Coe.
“The quality of schools, the quality of education is one of the primary concerns for a family moving to a community,” he said. “Anything that leads one to question that is going to have a negative impact on our community.”
The sanction can be lifted at any time by a vote of the teachers.
“That will happen when we feel the classroom and the students in those classrooms are the top priority of this district, and when we are comfortable with the level of trust with the board and central office,” Head said.