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Woolnough Loses Board Appeal

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Other administrative changes announced

In a decision surprising to some who watched the process, the Lake Pend Oreille School district has voted to deny A.C. Woolnough's appeal of his transfer to a classroom position next year.

Woolnough, who worked as the district's administrative services coordinator, was informed on May 15 that he would be spending next year working in a "lock down" classroom in the juvenile probation department; a demotion that resulted in an over $20,000+ cut in salary. The district stated that the transfer was made due to financial constraints in next year's school budget. 

Woolnough appealed that decision to the board of trustees in a lengthy hearing which ended last week.

"I'm surprised and disappointed at both the process and the decision," Woolnough said in a telephone interview as he traveled east to attend a family wedding. "My issues all along were about fundamental fairness and righting a wrong."

According to Woolnough's attorney Steve Verby, then superintendent Steve Deal encouraged the board of trustees, in a private meeting held prior to the second half of Woolnough's appeal hearing, to reverse not only Woolnough's transfer, but that of four other district administrators who had also requested the board reconsider those moves. Deal presented the board with a proposal that would save the district almost $200,000, which is more than the $85,000 Battenschlag has stated the transfers will save.

Whether the transfers will save money or not was hotly disputed not only by Woolnough in his hearing, but also by citizens of the district. Even Steve Battenschlag, Chief Administrator of the district and the person who recommended the transfers, seemed unsure about the savings, presenting figures that changed three times over the course of five days. During Woolnough's hearing, Battenschlag admitted the series of transfers saved no more than $700 for the district. "But hear me out," he added, and went on to describe a day treatment program he wants to implement next year that will potentially provide the district several hundred thousand dollars in additional revenue. Battenschlag failed to explain how that program justified the transfer of Woolnough.

Watchers at the hearing were confused about the process they were seeing; presumptively an opportunity for Woolnough to present to the board reasons why they should reconsider the transfer, it instead appeared to be a hearing to determine whether Battenschlag was at fault in the decisions he made.

Battenschlag stated he was presented with a crisis situation on May 14 when he received notification that anticipated revenues for next year's school budget might be even lower than already anticipated - the governor's office was advising districts across the state to budget prudently. Because administrators must be notified by May 15 whether their contract is being renewed for the next year, Battenschlag said he had to move quickly.

Chairman Tom Scott referred to that time frame when he initially objected to hearing testimony from then-superintendent Deal on additional ways the district could save money, asking what relevance it had to the decision Battenschlag was faced with on the 14th. What he didn't seem to understand was that the Board wasn't being asked to determine if Battenschlag acted appropriately on a certain day in time - they were being asked to reconsider that decision, especially in light of new information that suggested savings could be made in other ways.

In addition, Woolnough and his attorney were not allowed to cross-examine Battenschlag when he put on a rebuttal argument to Woolnough's presentation after a several day delay.  If a student in the district is suspended, that student has a right to "cross examine" the employees involved in the decision. It would appear that administrators are not entitled to the same level of due process as even students receive.

Deal told the trustees that his plan would save the district $195,000 and "put both the administrative moves and the budget to rest" while eliminating the need for the appeals hearings underway.

Deal stated later that he offered his proposal because, "This tempest is unfortunate at the best, and damaging at the worst. To use a cliché, there's more than one way to skin a cat, and I thought that looking at some alternatives could move us forward constructively."

The board accepted at least some of Deal's recommendations, which were made with input from new superintendent Mark Berryhill as well. Curriculum director Ann Knapp will remain as half-time curriculum director and half-time Title I director. Jack Dyck will remain as athletic director at Sandpoint High School. Pat Valliant will move to Farmin/Stidwell Elementary, while Carlos Alarid will go to Sandpoint High School. Patty Patzer will maintain her current salary, but will still be moved into the day treatment program. Woolnough is the only one whose transfer was completely upheld and, with the decision to deny that appeal, it appears the board is willing to ride out at least some of this tempest. 

Woolnough's position during his appeal was that his transfer had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with Battenschlag's desire to "get rid of" Woolnough in the district.

Verby said that testimony in the hearing, along with other alternatives to saving money, support the public's position that the moves were motivated by personal and/or personnel issues rather than a simple interest in the bottom line.

"The testimony was that Battenschlag stated "AC.'s out of here," and a year later, he's in juvenile detention. That's quite a coincidence," said Verby. "And I don't believe in coincidence.

"The chief administrator tells the public that these people are being reassigned in order to save money," he added. "This is wrong. There will be no cost savings from the demotions. In fact, these reassignments will result in greater costs to the district."

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

education, Lake Pend Oreille School District, budget, funding, AC Woolnough

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