Former Bonner County school superintendent Max Harrell twice in his career has been paid not to work.
Trustees paid the superintendent $222,000 in December to leave Bonner County. The district bought out Harrell’s contract rather than endure two more years of discord in the community.
What residents here didn’t know about Harrell when he was hired and summarily forced out, is that he was bought out by another district in the wake of a similar controversy.
The Butte Valley School District, at the northern tip of California, gave Harrell a buyout in 1992. He received about $110,000 to leave that district, where he also was superintendent.
That district had to demolish a brand-new school because of safety concerns. Harrell oversaw the construction. The buyout and school abandonment put Butte Valley in financial trouble, district officials said.
District operations were almost taken over by the state because of money woes. The county still oversees the district’s purchases and expenditures as a type of probation, district officials said.
“Change the amount of money and the names and it was the same thing you had up there (in Sandpoint),” said Jerry Ross, a retired superintendent and school board member during Harrell’s tenure in Dorris, Calif.
It’s unclear whether Harrell still lives in Sandpoint or if he is working in another district. The office of Stanley Moore, Harrell’s Coeur d’Alene attorney, was contacted to try to find Harrell for comment. Moore did not return phone calls.
Ross and other Butte Valley school officials said they were not contacted about Harrell’s performance before Bonner County hired him in 1995.
“I thought they would have checked. I started to call once and said leave him (Harrell) alone. Maybe he can do someone some good,” Ross said. “I’m sorry I didn’t call.”
Harrell, who was 52 when he was hired in Bonner County, had been a teacher and principal before becoming a superintendent.
He headed the Butte Valley district for five years. He then took a job as assistant superintendent at Dos Palos Unified School District in central California for two years before heading to Bonner County.
Three Sandpoint board members visited the Dos Palos district before selecting Harrell from 25 applicants.
The trustees said Harrell received high marks from teachers, parents and union members. Some staff members wore black armbands and told Bonner County trustees they were mourning the loss of Harrell. “That was a clue right off the bat he was somebody worth having,” former trustee Brent Baker said of Harrell in a 1995 interview.
Apparently no one on the hiring committee, which was made up of teachers, union members, parents and trustees, thoroughly checked into Harrell’s tenure at Butte Valley. Sandpoint High School teacher Tony Delewese said that was an expensive mistake.
“I would think you would go back further than a single previous employer, especially for that position. It’s the highest paid in the district,” he said.
Delewese is a member of the teacher’s union who opposed some of Harrell’s policies.
He cast a wide net of blame, saying the union didn’t check out Harrell’s past either. “We messed up.”
“I sure didn’t know about the buyout down there. In hindsight there should have been better (background) checks done,” added Bonner school trustee Jerry Owens. He was not a trustee when Harrell was hired and just recently found out about Harrell’s troubles in California.
In the buyout agreement, Bonner County school officials are not allowed to comment on Harrell’s job performance.
All questions from prospective employers are referred to the school district’s attorney.
“He’ll still get another job,” Ross, a former Butte Valley school board member, said of Harrell. “He was kind of a guru. He talked a good story and could convince you of almost anything.” Ross supported Harrell when he first arrived.
Harrell left Butte Valley, a district of about 400 students, in 1992. He left before a multimillion-dollar construction project went sour.
Dorris Elementary was built during Harrell’s tenure. The building later was found to be unsafe and condemned.
Harrell was blamed by many residents for not keeping a closer eye on the project.
Inspectors noted about 11 pages of safety violations, according to school district officials and published reports in the Butte Valley Star. One story about the problem-plagued school was headlined, “Violations to the Max,” playing on Harrell’s first name.
The school was abandoned shortly after it was built in 1991. It wasn’t demolished until this spring. “Hopefully it was one of the last memories of Max Harrell that we have to erase,” Ross said. The school was left standing for years to be used as evidence. Students have had to use portable classrooms until another school is built.
Shirley Kerwin, a patron and watchdog in the Butte Valley district, spotted stories on the Internet about Harrell’s problems in Bonner County.
“When I read what had gone on in your school district, it was like deja vu,” she said.
Harrell sharply divided the Butte Valley community, she said. “He ran off a lot of good people who had been here for many, many years. He made it so rough, so miserable they would leave.
“There are people here who still believe in Max Harrell, but there are those who also think he was the worst thing to happen to this district. This is a small town and people still don’t speak to one another because of him.”
A similar rift happened in Bonner County. Harrell still has a core group of supporters in Bonner County who liked his background in curriculum and special education.
But Harrell’s proposals and policies angered large groups of residents.
Nearly 1,200 patrons turned out to protest a cut in extra curricular activities while Harrell and other administrators took raises. Teachers cast a vote of no confidence in Harrell. One popular principal is suing the district after Harrell tried to demote him to a teaching post.
Both districts ousted trustees who staunchly defended Harrell. In Butte Valley, residents recalled three board members. Before the trustees left office they offered the $110,000 buyout package to Harrell.
“All the board members who supported him but one are gone. They moved away and we are still living with the problems he brought us,” Ross said of Harrell. “We couldn’t afford it (the buyout).”
Angry voters in Bonner County booted two trustees who listened to Harrell rather than the community. Before the board members left they voted to extend Harrell’s contract for two years. They did it despite objections by newly elected board members.
Harrell’s contract would have expired this year. The district ended up paying him for two years he never had to work.
District officials plan to use professionals to screen future candidates for school administrative jobs. The district will get help from businesses worried about the quality of education here.
Coldwater Creek, a mail-order catalog company, routinely recruits executives from major companies. They have offered to “headhunt” for qualified district officials, Owens said.
“A more thorough job of searching for these key people needs to be done,” Owens added. “We need to learn from the past so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”
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