Educating Canyon County 

Nampa weathers its budget storm, while 2C trains the teachers of tomorrow

NAMPA CRAWLS OUT OF ITS BUDGET HOLE

Students hone their math skills, while district officials apologize for their lack thereof

It's something called a "Mad Minute."

Mrs. Koeppen's fourth-grade class, at Nampa's Park Ridge Elementary School, hushed to complete silence as 26 fourth-graders leaned forward, pencils at the ready.

"Five, four, three, two one; on your mark; get set; go!"

And with that, the class flipped over its papers, and in choreographed silence, pencils feverishly filled in the blanks of a page-full of equations--30, to be precise.

"Each sheet has 30 multiplication problems; we'll soon be moving up to a sheet of 60," said Misty Koeppen, a 16-year veteran of the Nampa School District.

Not every answer was perfect and more than a few were smudged with eraser marks. Nonetheless, the exercise would readily impress a parent, educator or Idaho lawmaker. One could only have hoped for the same math skills at Nampa's school district office in 2012, when a $2 million miscalculation triggered a series of accounting errors that left Idaho's third-largest school district (second only to Meridian and Boise) drowning in more than $5 million-worth of red ink.

Pete Koehler, the most recent person the district has recruited to help salvage the crisis (in May he became Nampa's third school superintendent in seven months), learned of the problem just a few days before the public got wind of the scandal (Boise Weekly, Citydesk, "Nampa Can't Do the Math," Aug. 15, 2012). At the time, Koehler was principal of Nampa High School, with an eye toward retirement.

"It was August 2012 and [then-Nampa School Superintendent] Gary Larsen told me, 'We have a problem. We have a $2 million mistake that came from an accounting error. They double-counted the money.' That was a pretty difficult meeting, but we came out of there with a list of decisions that had to be made: cut supplies, cut some transportation, limit the number of substitutes. I thought, quite frankly, that the principals had helped to put a pretty good dent into that $2 million deficit,'" Koehler told Boise Weekly. "The next thing I know, maybe two weeks later, I get called into another meeting where they said, 'The original $2 million mistake was even deeper.' At that point, I thought, 'When is this going to end?'"

But the nightmare was just beginning.

"It just seemed, week after week, it was like getting punched in the face because there was another crisis," he said.

Ultimately, the Nampa School District limped out of its 2012 Fiscal Year by overspending more than $4.2 million. Through a series of draconian cuts, FY 2012 ended with a $3.1 million deficit.

"But then came the next call from Superintendent Larsen. This time, I knew what he was going to do," said Koehler.

Indeed, Larsen resigned, followed soon thereafter by his deputy superintendent. The Nampa School Board turned next to Thomas Michaelson to take the helm. But by May of this year, Michaelson also quit, when he said some of his proposed spending cuts received lackluster support from the school board.

"The past year has not been pleasant," said Koehler. "I still shake my head."

Koehler then got a call from the Nampa School Board, but he insisted that if he were to become the district's next interim superintendent, it would be a limited assignment.

"I told them, they didn't tell me. I said I would need to leave by the end of June 2014, after they hire a new full-time superintendent, which I expect to happen in February 2014," he said.

Koehler, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army--retiring as a lieutenant colonel--doesn't panic. A small pin on his lapel indicates that he's a decorated paratrooper--he, quite literally, jumps into trouble.

"Yes, I tend to be fairly steady," he said with a deep, direct, but calming voice. "When some people scream and holler that the world is coming to an end, I'm saying, 'Now, let's settle down.'"

One of Koehler's first orders of business was managing through the current 14-day furlough of most of Nampa's educators and certified staff. Delicate negotiations with the teachers union stretched through much of this past spring and summer.

"The district's relationship with the Nampa Education Association for the previous two years was, to be polite, not positive," said Koehler. "Are there still differences? A few. But I'm not hostile to the NEA and I don't believe they're hostile to the district leadership."

In an effort to balance the district's current fiscal year, a number of dramatic fixes have occurred--not the least of which was restructuring an existing bond (approved in 2007), which saved the district $4.3 million.

"It gives me momentary comfort. Do I still lay awake every night, wondering about something? Oh, yeah," said Koehler."We deeply damaged our credibility with the community. We're in the process of trying to repair that."

What really pains him is that the 2012 fiscal crisis resulted in the loss of some of the district's veteran educators.

"We have 160 new teachers this year. It will take time for us to recover from that," he said. "There's a price to pay."

Meanwhile over at Park Ridge Elementary School--four miles from the district's administration offices--Misty Koeppen's voice softened when BW asked about her colleagues who left the district due to the crisis.

"I knew almost every teacher that left," she said. "Some left the profession entirely."

Koeppen knows a thing or two about negotiating with the district's administration. She was the president of the Nampa teachers' union for six years, before returning to the classroom in 2010.

"Back then, we had a wonderful relationship with the district," she recalled. "But that really hasn't been the case for the last two years. We weren't even talking civilly to one another in the past year. It was very difficult to watch."

When asked about the 2012 revelation of the district's accounting errors, Koeppen told BW that she had been flat-out angry.

"I worked with those people. I had a strong trust in them, and I always thought things were on the up-and-up," she said. "So many of the teachers told me that they felt they hadn't been trusted enough to be told the truth."

And the cuts have been severe, Koeppen said, adding that she continues to work on her lesson plans on her furlough days, even though she's not paid.

"Plus, we have zero money for supplies," she said. "There's really nothing worse than a student who comes into class and their parents can't afford their supplies. I and all of the other teachers are paying for those supplies with our own money."

Nearby sat a stack of boxes filled with Tootsie Pops and little bags of bite-sized candies.

"We're going to try to sell these during the lunch hour, for 25 cents," said Koeppen. "You see, we don't have any money for field trips or guest lecturers, so we're really hoping to raise some funds so that our fourth-graders can learn a bit more about Idaho history."

Twenty-five cents may not seem like much, but it adds up, as Koeppen's fourth-grade math whiz-kids know all too well. But multiplying all of those quarters until they total $4.3 million might be a lesson worth learning for everyone in the district, not just the students.

--George Prentice
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