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Bonner Schools Attract A Crowd Board Positions Hotly Contested

The hours are long. The pay isn’t low, it’s nonexistent. And the phone rings at all hours, typically with a complaint, not a compliment, at the other end.

That job description is not exactly incentive to run for the Bonner County School Board.

Still, it hasn’t scared away candidates who want to help run this district - one that is mired in controversy, under investigation by the state, under fire by patrons and half a million dollars in debt.

Four residents - two incumbent board members and two challengers - will ask voters Tuesday to put them on the trustee hot seat. That’s a change from the last election when trustee Ann Souza was declared the winner without a vote being cast. No one challenged her. The difference this time is people are fed up with a rubber-stamp school board that listens to the administration rather than the public, said candidate Jerry Owens. Turmoil in the district prompted him and businessman Tom Fuhriman to make a run at incumbents Rebecca Hawkins and Bill Osmunson.

“I just keep waiting for some real concrete progress to be made in this district and I just don’t see it,” said Owens, 53. “I want to make sure the administrators know they work for the board and the public, not the other way around. Maybe then we can get some things done.” The district is riddled with problems other than its debt:

State lawmakers called for an investigation of how the district spends its money and for a review of Special Education Director Bob Howman and his department. Howman overspent his budget by $180,000. He spent $91,000 to send one student to a private drug treatment program in Montana.

Teachers have worked without a contract for a year and have been told there is no money for raises. At the same time administrators were given a 2.8 percent raise this year and professional negotiators were hired for $14,500 to haggle with teachers.

The teachers union recently gave a vote of no confidence in Superintendent Max Harrell, the 10th highest paid superintendent in the state. Another administrator, Ed Sansom, is under investigation by the state for alleged ethical violations.

Next week a state advisory team arrives to review the district’s budget, staffing ratios and some personnel problems.

One incumbent trustee, Osmunson, has filed a complaint against the district and the state for about $14 million. He claims the district cannot provide students a proper education because the state underfunds school districts.

Osmunson refused to talk to The Idaho Spokesman-Review because of recent articles pointing out troubles within the district. He also declined to provide any written statements as to why he was seeking re-election to the school board.

Osmunson’s attitude is another example of the district’s poor ability to communicate with patrons, teachers and the administration, Owens said.

“When you have teachers with no contract and have to hire professional negotiators to come rather than sit down and talk as a community - something is wrong,” he said.

“We’ve got some real serious problems and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving. In my view some of the decisions that have been made show very poor judgment,” added Fuhriman, 45, referring in part to the budget deficit.

“To me it’s the responsibility of the school board to be watchdogs over the administration and hold them accountable for making good, sound business decisions. It appears that too often they have been simply rubber-stamping decisions.”

Hawkins, 37, has four children in the school system. She was voted in three years ago after patrons became disgruntled with that board. Now Hawkins is on the other side of the patron discontent. “I think the school district and the school board have made some mistakes, but some positive things have also happened,” she said.

The board has tried to put decision-making in the hands of principals and teachers instead of administrators. It’s a program called site-based management. The project has been in the works for two years and is still not fully implemented. But as funds get tighter, Hawkins said it will be critical that schools decide how that money is used.

What the district needs now, she said, is consistency and stability, not new board members who aren’t up to speed on how the district operates.

“Part of the problem is boards and superintendents change over every few years in this district and we have no consistency.”

Hawkins said she welcomes the state review of the district, noting it’s critical the district look at how it’s spending its money.

“I’m looking forward to that part of the investigation. We can argue where the money is going but the bottom line is we do not spend a lot of money on education,” she said, pointing out residents here are reluctant to pass school levies. “I’m not proud to be 49th out of 50 states in funding for our kids.”

Fuhriman and Owens both say residents won’t pass levies here until they trust the board and administration.

“People won’t pass levies until they know the money is going to be used for kids instead of senseless purchases and poor business decisions,” said Fuhriman.

Superintendent Harrell was roundly criticized by residents this month when he asked for a 50 percent cap on extracurricular activity budgets. About 1,300 people turned out at a meeting to protest Harrell’s plan.

The cap was to slow spending and reduce the deficit. But Owens said many patrons thought Harrell’s plan was to hold student programs hostage to get residents to pass a levy.

“It was a game he was playing and that was unacceptable to me,” Owens said. “He created more grief in this district that didn’t need to happen.”

Fuhriman and Owens want to see cuts in the central office administration. Other priorities should include a districtwide curriculum for teachers and the ability for teachers to make suggestions and criticism without fear of reprisals by administrators.

Owens also wants to redistrict schools, making Priest River a separate district. That would give residents in that area more control over what happens in the classrooms and make it easier to pass levies in Sandpoint and Priest River.

Fuhriman’s main goal is to get the district finances in order and rebuild public trust.

“Many of the problems we have are not unique to Sandpoint but the solutions they reach for seem to make no sense, like trying to cut extracurricular activities,” he said. “To make our kids suffer the consequences of poor decisions by others is just not right. We need to use our current resources in the best possible way.”

The school board election is Tuesday. Polls are open from noon to 8 p.m.

, DataTimes