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Just Business?

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Teacher's Association Objects to Non-Educator Running the School District - How's it Working, Anyway?

At last week’s meeting of the Lake Pend Oreille School District’s (LPOSD) board of trustees, Tony Delewese, president of the Lake Pend Oreille Education Association (LPOEA), read a prepared statement on behalf of the teacher’s union. 

The statement said simply, “We, the members of the Lake Pend Oreille Education Association, insist that the LPOSD board of trustees put in place, as the head of the school district, a qualified, credentialed, professional educator as is consistent with all other school districts in the state of Idaho.”

It has been a troubled year for the school district, and the brunt of criticism has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the Chief Administrator, Steve Battenschlag, who was appointed by the board to run the district in January of 2001, after then-Superintendent Roy Rummler announced his resignation. Rummler was the district’s seventh Superintendent in a ten-year period.

Public criticism of Battenschlag has focused on his lack of education credentials. Of the 114 superintendents in the state of Idaho, none holds less than a master’s degree and close to half have a six-year degree. In addition, over 48% have over 21 years experience in education. Battenschlag has refused to answer questions about his educational background, stating only that he holds a degree in business marketing.

Both Battenschlag and the board have said the Chief Administrator possesses the only quality they deem necessary to be qualified to run this school district – successful experience in doing so. And that’s another area where Battenschlag has come under fire – from a public and school district employees who believe the execution of “successful administration” has been nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

When Battenschlag first joined the district in 1991, he moved quickly from a position as a purchasing agent to a position in the district’s financial department, working under accounting manager Jane May, and district treasurer John Winju. In 1993, then-Superintendent Gary Barton was bought out of his contract. Leonard Parenteau was appointed as interim superintendent, and Battenschlag became business manager of the district in 1994. Parenteau was replaced by Max Harrell in 1996.

In response to community concerns with district expenditures, the board and Superintendent Harrell took an unprecedented step in 1997 – they adopted a resolution requesting the Department of Education to provide “a fact finding team to observe and offer recommendations” to the district. “The Department of Education shall conduct its own analysis of the district’s past financial history and current year budget...” it said. 

Those were controversial times for the then Bonner County School District, which had been running with a deficit for years. In a budget hearing held in Priest River, the board accepted a budget prepared by Steve Battenschlag – one that spent the district well into the red. When community members protested, the board rescinded their vote, and adopted a separate budget developed and presented by Superintendent Harrell – one that balanced.

The investigation was conducted in June, and the findings of the State Department of Education raised some serious concerns about the financial operation of the district.

“We see no evidence of a plan to develop a balanced budget,” they wrote. In addition, “We see no evidence of a plan to manage the budget or reduce the deficit.” The proposed budget at that time, under the management of Steve Battenschlag, was almost $1 million into the red – illegal under Idaho’s constitution.

Although the investigative team commended the district for the implementation of site-based management, and the development of a Long Range Improvement project, those activities have since been abandoned. Criticisms of the district’s financial practices, however, seem to be as valid today as they were then.

“A significant amount of distrust concerning almost all aspects of the (district’s) policies, procedures and functions exist at all levels of the community.”

“Personnel decisions have resulted in numerous grievances and legal actions, which appear to be increasing.”

“...hiring of spouses – even within policy and on best applicant selection – usually results in disgruntled employees and mistrust among patrons...”

“The district has a history of spending beyond its means...”

“The district has developed an excessive reliance on legal counsel for day-to-day decision making.”

Those statements, made by the State Department of Education in 1997, might well be made today, as well.

With salaries and benefits for district employees taking the lion’s share of all revenues (Battenschlag has said 94% of general fund dollars go to salaries), how people are paid has a significant impact on the budget. 

In 94/95, according to the fact-finding report, the district had overspent its state allotment by 1.8%; “which is not excessive,” the report said.

In 95/96, however, classified and instructional salaries were 6.6% over the allotment and, “the district began to overspend their administrative state allotment... the district began to spend beyond their means..”

In 96/97, that pattern had multiplied – the classified state allotment was overspent by 16%, and the district spent close to a half million dollars more than their allotment for administrative personnel. “It’s important to note here... instructional staff did not receive an increase in base pay...”

Battenschlag, the report said, blamed the non-certified salary increases on the district’s adoption of a salary schedule for those employees. In response, the fact finders said, “Again, districts must adopt salary schedules which they can afford...”

Although there have been no official fact-finders since 96/97, interested patrons have tracked district spending on salaries – which is public information in the state of Idaho. And they believe the district’s record is worse today than it was a few years ago.

“They’re spending more money,” pointed out Sagle resident Doris Matz, well known for her interest in district finances. “And it’s a smaller district.”

According to figures Matz compiled, Bonner County School District spent $534,449 on district central office salaries in 1993. At that time, Priest River was still a part of the school district. Today, with five fewer schools and over 2000 fewer students, the district is spending $916,231 (figures as of 01/02). 

Deanna James is another area resident, and former district employee, who questions how the district is spending money. She looked at one line-item in the budget that’s directly for students – instructional materials. In ‘98/’99, the district budgeted $165,201. Last year, that amount was $177,685. In this coming year’s financially troubled budget, that amount drops to $159,302 – less than $40 per student.

Despite public questions regarding these types of expenditures, which appear to focus dollars more on administration than on students, the board remains steadfast in its support of Battenschlag. “When you see the work that gets done day-by-day in the district, you realize that nobody understands the arcane details of school funding and administration like Steve does,” said board chairman Tom Scott. “That knowledge, gained over nine years working for the district, is invaluable to the board, and to students and teachers.”

Scott, in fact, believes criticism of the structure has little to do with facts and more to do with “the tough decisions that have been made.

“I would point to some of those decisions, however controversial, as other examples of the success of the current system. Over the years, the district had fallen well behind the state renewal cycle for textbooks. We needed to get on track and Steve Battenschlag found a way to do that. He put the needs of kids and teachers first, and adjusted other budget items to make it happen.”

In the 01-02 budget, in fact, general fund expenditures for textbooks were $435,656, an increase from the $6,700 in the 00-01 budget and $145,000 in 99-00. That renewal cycle for textbooks, in fact, was a primary motivating factor for district patrons who worked on the 1994 supplemental levy – the first levy to pass in the district since the ’87 plant facility levy which built new schools throughout the district. That levy asked voters specifically for $250,000 in order to purchase textbooks and get the district back into the state renewal cycle. Subsequent successful levies asked for the same, although levies in more recent years no longer state an exact dollar amount that will be spent.

Despite the request of the union, an evaluation of the current administrative structure is not likely to happen anytime soon. "We are 1 1/2 years away from considering the renewal of Steve's contract," Scott explained, and "the board as a whole has not had an issue with the structure." He also believes time should be given to see how the choice of Mark Berryhill, as a superintendent working under Battenschlag, will impact the governance of the district. Still, Scott said, because two members of the board were not present at the meeting last week, the board has not had an opportunity to discuss the union's position.

"Leadership in tough times is not about being popular;" Scott said, "it's about being decisive and effective.

"America's system of public education is a cornerstone of our democratic society," he added. "I stay at this (because) I believe quality public schools are essential to a healthy community." Scott believes Battenschlag has the ability to lead Lake Pend Oreille School District in the direction of those quality public schools, even in the face of a lack of faith in those abilities expressed by the teacher's association and members of the public. Perhaps only time, or an objective evaluation, will provide the true answer to that.

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Landon Otis

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education, Steve Battenschlag, LPOSD, Tony Delewese, union, Tom Scott

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