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The More Things Change

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What's going on in the Lake Pend Oreille School District?

     When Lake Pend Oreille School District #84 announced in May a series of administrative transfers, it created barely a ripple in the community. By June, however, just a few short weeks later, that ripple has grown into a wave of discontent amongst teachers, administrators and community members that threatens to topple the district’s Chief Administrator, Steve Battenschlag.

On two separate occasions in May, the district announced administrative transfers that affected all but three schools in the district; the second series of transfers included: Sandpoint High School athletic director Jack Dyck, former SHS principal A.C. Woolnough, working for the past year in the central office in the assessment department; Curriculum Director Ann Knapp; SHS assistant principal Pat Valliant; and Patty Patzer, the principal at Lake Pend Oreille Alternative High School who was nominated as one of Idaho’s “Brightest Stars” early this school year. All five have requested hearings before the Board to protest their transfers. The transfers, along with other changes in the district, were touted as a response to the school district’s financial woes.

Just a few short months ago, of course, the district passed a $4.4 million, two-year supplemental levy, telling voters the money would serve to “continue the educational program.”

At that time, Battenschlag said that warnings of staff reductions weren’t “threats,” but were a reality the community would face should the levy fail. Today, even though the levy passed, staff reductions are occurring and some voters are feeling betrayed.

“I’m just really disappointed,” said Francie Martin of Clark Fork. “We think the people we put in charge are paying attention to what they’re doing and they’re not. They shouldn’t be cutting staff. My child is entering kindergarten next year and she deserves a full time teacher who will focus on kindergarten,” she said. Parents at Hope School have been told there will be no separate kindergarten next year; instead, a K-1 combo class will be offered. “They’re really two different types of education, but you wouldn’t know it unless you’re in the classroom.”

Board Chairman Tom Scott says, "Levy promises were always based on the caveat that it was under the assumption that the legislature would not pass the holdback, and/or we would not experience any other significant reduction in funding. Turns out we will experience both and everyone forgets or ignores that point all too quickly."

Although Battenschlag has refused for over a month to respond to phone calls or emails from The River Journal, he has spoken with the local teacher’s union (the Lake Pend Oreille Education Association), with Blue Sky Broadcasting’s News Director Mike Brown, and with Corenne Stewart of the Daily Bee. To these people he says cuts in staffing and a series of involuntary transfers are necessary because of the financial position of the school district.

Financial Woes

“Mr. Battenschlag informed us that the district was facing a financial shortfall next year that could be as high as $1.2 million dollars,” explained Lori Stone, head of the teacher’s negotiating team. In response, teachers agreed that over half their number would accept a freeze in their salaries. 

Despite this agreement, Battenschlag, in an interview with Mike Brown for local radio news, said that four teaching positions would have to be cut "because teachers didn’t agree to freeze their salaries." Administrative certificated staff agreed to a freeze, as did classified staff, he stated. He went on to say that the union had polled teachers, who refused to agree to a freeze in salaries even though they knew it would mean cutting teachers.

That statement, according to union President Tony Delewese, “is simply not true.” Even prior to Battenschlag’s comment, however, staff were unhappy with his performance as Chief Administrator, and the union has placed on the agenda discussion of a vote of “no confidence” at their next regular meeting in August. “There’s certainly a movement (in support) of that,” said Delewese.

That's news to Chairman Scott, who said "administrators and key staff" in the district were invited to evaluate Battenschlag's performance early this year. "The results were positive," Scott said. "He received top marks on almost every category. There was little in the results to suggest significant discontent with Steve or the existing structure."

District employees say the evaluation was meaningless as employees were expected to sign their names, thus preventing any honest assessment of Battenschlag's performance.

Those same financial straits that Battenschlag informed the union of are also the stated reason for the series of administrative transfers.

“The letter I received from the Chairman (of the Board) stated (my transfer) was due to budgetary considerations,” said A.C. Woolnough, one of the administrators who has filed for a hearing. “That assertion is in dispute.”

Battenschlag was quoted in the Daily Bee as saying, “We’ve heard the public saying cut administration.” But an examination of the transfers doesn’t appear to lead to any cost savings. Only one of the positions included in this year’s budget is not included in next year’s budget- that of curriculum director. Many teachers have written to the Board to protest this focus, which goes to the heart of student achievement. 

Woolnough's current position in assessment is also not funded next year, but as Battenschlag has stated repeatedly that Woolnough's salary was paid out of a grant, reducing that salary cannot account for any savings to the district. Furthermore, Battenschlag has created a new position in the central office which Patzer is being transferred to- a day treatment program for troubled teens. It's unclear where money for that salary would come from.

While the position of administrative intern at Lake Pend Oreille Alternative High School, a job held by Becky Kiebert, is not funded next year, intern positions at other schools are. Kiebert was paid $50,662 last year, even though administrative interns (a position similar to student teachers) have historically never been a paid position. Work as an intern is a required part of administrative certification - it is part of an administrator's schooling, not a part of their employment.

Community Concerns

Some members of the community question whether the forced transfers, which are allowed under the law when due to financial constraints, really have anything to do with money at all. “I called (Board Chairman) Tom Scott and told him I was calling as a concerned parent,” said Sagle resident Joe Mire. “I asked him directly if he believed Jack Dyck was good for the (athletic) program and good for the kids. He said no. He led me to believe, as a taxpayer and a parent, that Jack Dyck had done something that caused him to be demoted or reassigned.”

Marcy Karnes, another parent from Sandpoint, received the same impression from Board member Peter Pradanto. “I was asking him about why A.C. was initially moved from Sandpoint High School (and) he definitely left me with the impression that A.C. had done something wrong.”

Scott says, "As a function of our good intentions, we say things to people to try to help them understand. Unfortunately, all too often, people who call are doing so to catch us in our words to discredit or diminish us personally when they don't agree with something that has happened. Or, they have such a strong opinion that it causes them to lose their objectivity. Sometimes, they just hear something other than what was said. Whatever the reason, there are times when our words get misquoted and/or misused. Human communications are error prone enough in normal situations. Enter the current super-charged environment and you have to be very careful about believing peoples' recounting of "so and so said" if one is committed to the truth."

Scott was not responding specifically to the statements made by Mire or Karnes, but to rumors that he's made public statements suggesting personnel issues regarding some of the transferred administrators.

In his interview with Mike Brown, Battenschlag stated community discontent is the result of “a group of people who, for some reason, want to demonize decisions that I’ve made...” He didn’t identify a group he had in mind, but shortly before the interview Battenschlag met with at least one person in the community that’s not content with his decisions – former SHS principal and school Board trustee Dick Sordorff. “I’m here to protest the transfer of Jack Dyck,” stated Sordorff. “He’s one of the finest athletic directors this school has ever had.”

Battenschlag has stated that outgoing Superintendent of Educational Services Steve Deal, who announced his resignation last December, and incoming Superintendent Mark Berryhill, formerly principal of Washington Elementary School, will explain the rationale for the transfers at Wednesday’s school Board meeting at Kootenai Elementary School. Deal, however, when asked directly whether he was the one who made the decision to transfer so many administrators, stated simply, “No.” When asked if he had any input at all into those decisions, he said, “I was told those transfers would occur.” He added that “the reason I was given... they were a cost reduction measure.” This lack of input is indicative of what some district employees say is a management structure that has completely removed the Superintendent from the educational process. 

Until recently, the Superintendent has always sat at the side of the Board Chairman at regular trustee meetings and has presented a monthly report on the educational activities of the district. That seat has been usurped by Battenschlag as Chief Administrator and, when asked about his lack of attendance at Board meetings, Deal said simply, “I have never been asked to sit there.”

Deal, who holds a Master’s Degree plus 90 hours towards his doctorate, has 32 years experience in the education field and 16 years experience as a superintendent; he earned an annual salary of $72,008. His replacement, Mark Berryhill, confirmed that he’s been offered a salary of $85,100 as the new Superintendent, an increase of over $13,000 for the position. Berryhill, described in the community as “one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet,” has no previous experience as a Superintendent. Trustee Tom Scott, when asked whether the Board had approved the salary for Berryhill, responded, "The Board offered Mark Berryhill a contract. His salary was identical to the one offered Tony Feldhausen (with Board approval) and is identical to Steve Deal's salary when normalized for number of days worked per year." He went on to say that Berryhill's contract is for 260 days, Deal's was for 220. "What has misled people is the difference in working days. Tony's working days would have been the same as Mark's," he added.

Feldhausen was offered the Superintendent's position earlier this year but, after a few short weeks, decided not to accept the contract. According to Feldhausen, Scott is mistaken in his salary information.

"I was initially offered (by Battenschlag) $72,000," he explained. "But there is no way I would accept a salary that high when the district is facing financial problems and is looking at cutting teachers. I refused that salary, and accepted $68,000." Feldhausen went on to say his offer was for the standard 220 days - at five work days per week, a 260 day contract would require 52 work weeks - no Christmas, no New Year's, no Fourth of July.

There is confusion regarding the qualifications of Battenschlag, who signed a two-year contract (2002-2004) this January for a salary of $83,533. When The River Journal made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for information on any degrees held by Battenschlag, the district chose to have their attorney, Charlie Dodson, respond, ruling that under Idaho Code 9-340C, those records are not considered public information. That same code states, however, that all information may be disclosed to the public with the employee’s written consent. The River Journal made a request with the Clerk of the Board, Marvene Shaw, that Battenschlag be asked to voluntarily provide that information, but was told, “I decided not to ask Steve that. I figured you could call him yourself.” Battenschlag has chosen not to respond to that request.

There are no state comparative numbers for the position of Chief Administrator, as Lake Pend Oreille School District is the only one in the state to offer that position. All other 112 school districts operate with a Superintendent as the highest position in the chain of command. In Idaho, amongst school districts our size, the average Superintendent’s salary is $88,805. Of all Superintendents in the state for 2000-01, 80% have over 20 years experience and none hold less than a master’s degree.

The business model:

A group of folks concerned about the direction taken by the “business model” the district is said to operate under have confirmed that Battenschlag has attended at least a two-year (A.A. degree) program from Saddleback College in California; employees of the district around at the time Battenschlag was first hired, in 1993 (at $8.50 an hour) believe he holds at least a B.A. in Marketing.

Under Board policy, Battenschlag needs no degree to be qualified for Chief Administrator, a position placed at the top of the organizational chart for the district and which answers only to the Board. According to policy, the C.A. needs only 15 years experience in business and six years successful experience in school business management. It’s that six years of “successful” experience that’s now being questioned by citizens of the district, who wonder how shortfalls are successful management.

“That really is the question,” said Karnes. “Although (the transfer of) Jack Dyck was the initial impetus for me, there’s more than that. It’s how they’re handling the budget, how they’re explaining one way one time, and then another way the next.”

Of primary concern is the growth in administration and classified staff since the district was re-organized back in the 1999-2000 school year. At that time, what was once Bonner County School District split in two – the Priest River/Priest Lake area became West Bonner County District #83 and the remainder is now Lake Pend Oreille School District #84. Although LPOSD operates five fewer schools and has dropped from an average daily attendance (students) of 5,373 (98-99) to 3,775 (00-01), costs and number of positions for administrative personnel have steadily risen. In addition, of the 113 school districts in the state, LPO's administrative salaries are amongst the highest. Although LPOSD is only in the top 18% of state districts by student population, central office and administrative salaries are amongst the top 5% in the state.

That growth in classified personnel has caused some to wonder why cost cutting measures are focusing on the teaching staff. “(Battenschlag) stated we’re 16.61 teachers over our allocation,” explained union president Delewese. The state provides funding for 220 teachers in LPOSD – the district currently employs 237. “But our support personnel are $1,346,370 over the state allowance.” If cuts are to be made to save money, some would prefer to see those cuts come at a farther remove from students than the classroom. Some, in fact, might prefer to see an $83,000+ savings come directly from the elimination of the Chief Administrator’s position.

“We are very interested in getting a qualified educator that the Board will appoint as Superintendent,” explained Don Sanders, spokesperson for a growing group of citizens concerned about the direction the district is taking. They believe the business model has been a failure, and that the focus of the Board needs to change. “We’re here for the long haul,” he stated. “We want to ensure there’s a Board in place that are honorable, ethical people that (everyone) can have faith in. We want to help train trustees. We absolutely have to increase satisfaction (with local education).” Sanders has extensive experience in school improvement and has grandchildren in the local school district. The group has created a website, www.focusonschools.org, that should be accessible this week, to provide information regarding our local school system to the public at large. The site includes information on school law, assessment results, “citizen’s minutes” of school Board meetings, and comparisons of the relationship between money and student achievement. The site also includes a form where district employees can anonymously post information. 

How’s it doing?

When it comes to what those concerns might be, district employees are tight-lipped. “I’d love to give my opinion of (Battenschlag),” stated one 20+-year veteran of the district. “But I won’t unless everyone else does it at the same time.”

“(In my hearing) I’m going to focus on fundamental questions of right and wrong,” said Woolnough, who declined to elaborate further on the record. Woolnough is requesting the Board open his hearing up to the public, stating that, "I don't have anything to hide." 

Deal confirmed he has also requested an informal hearing with the Board prior to his leaving, in which he will offer suggestions for improving the management of the district.

Concerns over that management are wide-ranging. Patrons question how the district was able to certify an emergency levy, allowed when there's an increase in enrollment, when numbers reported to the state show a decrease in enrollment this year. They want an explanation of how supplemental levy dollars were spent, and want to know how the district is allowed to say they don't track those expenses. They question why salaries seem to bear little relation to the district's salary schedules- according to those schedules, the highest classified salary is $18.14 an hour ($37,731 a year). Yet many classified employees in the district office make much more than that - the clerk of the Board comes in at $52,000+. Most of all, people question what they perceive as a lack of focus on the classroom. 

At the request of local Legislators, the Democratic party chair, the teacher's union and patrons of the district, the State Department of Education has agreed to send members of their staff that are experts in finance and school district management to address community concerns. This may well be the best avenue to address a distrustful community.

This is not the first time the district has struggled with issues surrounding administration and/or Board conduct. "Obviously, there’s a problem with the system itself," explained Sanders. "People agitate and investigate, there’s change, and then they disappear into the woodwork. And then we’re right back where we were. We intend to focus on the system," he said of the group’s commitment to local school improvement.

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Landon Otis

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Lake Pend Oreille School District, eduation, funding, Steve Battenschlag, deconsolidation

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