This is Part 1 of a Two-part series in partnership with Idaho Education News. For PART TWO READ HERE.
On the evening of May 19th, 2015, 6 On Your Side News Anchor Michelle Edmonds broke the news with this tweet, “There will be 2 new West Ada School Board members - Julie Madsen and Russ Joki. What we didn’t know then was just how contentious, tumultuous and political the next year would become for those in charge of Idaho’s largest school district.
There will be 2 new West Ada School Board members - Julie Madsen and Russ Joki.— Michelle Edmonds (@michelleedmonds) May 20, 2015
The two new West Ada School Board Trustees, Zone 4 Representative Julie Madsen and Zone 5 Representative Russell Joki were sworn in on July 7, 2015. Madsen unseated Anne Ritter, who had served 13 years as a trustee. At the time of his election, Joki was embroiled in a lawsuit with the district over class fees, which he calls unconstitutional. The two joined former Board Chair and 15-year West Ada Trustee Mike Vuittonet and two trustees elected two years earlier, Tina Dean and Carol Sayles.
If you read the minutes of the group’s first board meeting, you can clearly sense tension already. Tina Dean was voted in as the board’s new chair, a position Trustee Vuittonet held. Chair Dean asked the two new trustees to introduce themselves and say a few words. According to the minutes, Joki said, “The climate of the district needs to change so that every staff member feels free to speak openly about the performance of the board and the administrators. There is a need to increase parental involvement in this district, and he would like to review the strategic plan because it minimizes parent involvement.” Joki later told 6 On Your Side, “I was elected to support transparency, bring things out into the public. To ask tough questions and to try and increase parent involvement,” he said in an October interview.
The minutes also reflected Madsen’s comments, including, “The board needs to be present, active and in touch with the community, which includes transparency in what we do. Accountability has to start at the top and then comes down to the classroom." Madsen stated her concern with the former board adding a year to the superintendent’s contract and concluded by saying, "The greatest challenge is to remain as servants and not politicians.”
Members immediately started looking into long-time Superintendent Dr. Linda Clark’s contract. During the June 23rd meeting the former trustees voted 3-2 to extend Dr. Clark’s contract through the 2017-2018 school year. The two opposition votes coming from Dean and Sayles. Political tensions ran high in that final meeting of the former board. In another divided 3-2 vote trustees censured Sayles, saying she divulged school personnel information in an election-eve email to endorse Madsen. Both Sayles and Dean voted against the censure.
The new board members questioned if the contract deliberations had been done behind closed doors and without public notification, which would be in violation of open meeting law. In an October interview with 6 On Your Side, Madsen said, “That was an immediate red flag to me that for some reason the prior board had evolved to a system where these deals were signed in secrecy without being open and transparent to the tax payers.” The controversy over the contract would lead the board to hire two different attorneys to review if laws were broken. That first board meeting set the tone for the next nine months.
At the end of July Governor Butch Otter named Dr. Clark to an open seat on the State Board of Education. Dr. Clark had previously worked on the Governor’s Task Force for Improving Education to present recommendations to the legislature about the future of K-12 education. Some members of the West Ada School Board publicly questioned whether Dr. Clark could juggle both roles.
In August Dr. Clark asked the board to hire a Director of Assessment. The salary attached to the job description was about $100,000. After testimony from West Ada staff and board discussion, Joki made a motion to reject not only the job description, but also the position. The motion would pass on a 3-2 vote with Dean and Vuittonet casting the dissenting votes.
September brought two major decisions. First, trustees agreed to pursue a two-year, $28 million supplemental levy in November. This levy would be a continuation of one already in place. The second decision happened in front of a packed board meeting on September 29th. In a 4-1 vote trustees voided Dr. Clark’s contract extension because according to their legal counsel it was done in an illegal manner by violating open meeting law. Vuittonet voted against the action. Joki told 6 On Your Side not only was he upset with how the contract extension was handled, but he also didn’t agree with the content of the contract. “What was not disclosed to the public, until we asked for it, was page two of the contract. On page two of the contract there are some really lucrative, golden hand shake provisions that would be really, really good if you were a big corporation, but not so good for an underfunded school district that is going to the public on November 3rd asking for more money,” said Joki.
Our media partner Idaho Education News found Dr. Clark was the third-highest paid superintendent in Idaho behind those in the Blaine County and Boise School Districts. Her annual salary was near $143,000. Among other things, she received a car for her professional and personal use, a $100,000 life insurance policy and the district would pay her entire retirement benefit. Under the contract, Dr. Clark would also receive close to a $30,000 salary bonus when she retired.
In a recent interview with 6 On Your Side Dean said, “I wish that last June I had been aware that we were not complying with open meeting laws and I could have spoken up at the time. Then we wouldn’t have an open meeting violation that we had to correct and then the turmoil that came out of that.”
As soon as the votes were counted in that September 29th meeting, shouts erupted from spectators in the room. Vuittonet walked out of the meeting and former Meridian School District Superintendent Christine Donnell (who ran the district from 1998-2004) openly demanded a recall of the four trustees. By the next day, a former Meridian School District Trustee, Reid Olsen, joined Donnell in co-chairing a committee to lead the recall effort. This would not be the end of the questions over Dr. Clark’s contract. Those discussions would continue into October.
Meanwhile, Joki’s case against West Ada moved forward. One day after hearing about a possible recall against him, Joki took the stand to testify the West Ada School District (and in his opinion, most Idaho school districts) violates the state constitution of “free common schools” by requiring students to pay class fees. The judge took the testimony under advisement and would end up ruling in Joki’s favor in November.
On October 16th Dean and Dr. Clark met behind closed doors. Both sides brought their attorneys. District Spokesman Eric Exline called the meeting “productive.” Part of a statement released by the district said they met, “...to discuss ways in which they can attempt to develop a more positive relationship moving forward in the interest of fostering the continued success of the district…all present believe that the meeting was productive, and they plan to further discuss these issues."
No further discussion would happen. On October 23, 2015, after 11 years as West Ada Superintendent, Dr. Clark resigned.
During a news conference to announce the decision Dr. Clark was clearly angry and frustrated when talking about the board. "I do not fear this witch hunt and what it may produce. I have operated this district with transparency and honesty. Though I have remained silent until now, hoping cooler heads would prevail and we would get back to the business of our students, that is not to be. This board has been militating my removal,” said Dr. Clark. Dr. Clark did not hold back, saying she had been negotiating with the board for weeks and the final offer she received was a “pittance” to play along and help pass the upcoming levy before resigning. Dr. Clark said the offer made her sick.
That day Joki responded to reporters’ questions saying he wanted to make it clear he and other board members did not force Dr. Clark out. Both Dean and Vuittonet said in recent interviews they were surprised by Dr. Clark’s resignation and no one on the board was given notice before the news conference. “I don’t believe she did anything worthy of that kind of treatment she received. She was left out of the loop, pushed out of executive sessions. It was pretty chaotic,” said Vuittonet.
The school board met for a regularly scheduled meeting just four days later and did not name a replacement for Dr. Clark. Trustees insisted their focus needed to remain on passing the levy.
The next day, Dean released a statement saying, in part, "Dr. Clark's claim that she was offered a 'few thousand dollars' to resign and be 'dishonest with the community' is a falsehood." Dean said the public deserved to know what really happened behind closed doors. Dean said the board offered Dr. Clark $56,000 after the superintendent told trustees she wanted to leave, but still insisted on being compensated for her entire three-year contract. Dean also claimed Dr. Clark was threatening to sue the district.
In a special meeting on October 29th the board reversed course and named an Interim Superintendent appointing West Ada’s Chief Operating Officer Joe Yochum. Yochum publicly stated that night he did not want to be considered as a candidate for the superintendent position in the future.
Even in the midst of change, on November 3rd the patrons in the West Ada School District voted by almost a 60 percent margin to approve the levy and move the district forward financially. The two-year, $28 million levy kept nine school days on the calendar and paid 35 teacher salaries.
Days later the board voted to terminate the former superintendent’s contract for "abandonment of employment" after Dr. Clark resigned in October.
It seemed no trustee was immune to recall. On November 9th a citizen group filed a petition to recall Zone 2 Trustee Vuittonet. At the same time, Vuittonet was also seeking the position of President of the Idaho Schools Board Association. At a meeting in North Idaho, ISBA members voted Moscow Charter School board member John Menter into the position.
On November 17th a judge ruled in favor of Joki in a lawsuit that had spanned three years, ruling it is unconstitutional for schools to charge for credited classes. It’s a case that started out being filed against all school districts in the state. A judge decided it first had to be decided in Joki’s home district, West Ada.
By the middle of November official recall paperwork had been turned in on all five West Ada Trustees. The two groups leading the separate recalls began gathering signatures in each trustee zone. Meanwhile, the board moved forward to find a new leader by holding the first of several public input sessions.
The district announced it was bringing in its first candidate, Dr. Mary Ann Ranells, the second week of December. Dr. Ranells is the former Lakeland School District Superintendent in North Idaho. She also has experience working for the state as the Deputy Superintendent for the Department of Education. Ranells was retired at the time and came for a district visit and interview.
On December 16th the board unanimously voted to name Ranells West Ada’s new leader. 6 On Your Side was there for the vote and talked with Ranells minutes after. “I am so excited, I can’t stand it,” she said. “This is a dream come true.” Ranells would start in January and be paid just over $77,000 through June of 2016. Dean told 6 On Your Side members of the recall committee questioned if the hiring happened too quickly. “It was not my choice to have a superintendent opening in the middle of the school year. I would have preferred to have a long overlap if we were going to have a changing of the guard, if you will,” she said. Vuittonet thought the superintendent search was not sufficient. “I didn’t think it was done properly. But I will also say that we were lucky,” he told 6 On Your Side.
A new year did not bring a new outlook for a West Ada Board in turmoil. On January 12th the board voted to forgo an appeal of the school fees lawsuit. Joki abstained and Vuittonet was the only no vote. During an exclusive interview in January with 6 On Your Side and Idaho Education News, Dr. Mary Ann Ranells (who prefers people call her by her first name) revealed she is against charging fees for credited classes. The long time educator said her philosophy is simple, she asks one question when making decisions – is this best for kids?
During our interview she also talked about the joy of her new job, even with the board chaos. “From the bottom of my heart, I think I am the luckiest kid on the block right now,” she beamed. When asked about her early impressions of the board Dr. Ranells said, “My first impression is here are some very bright people who are very, very passionate about education and hungry to learn." Dr. Ranells would not discuss the recall effort stating superintendents must not be political, but did say, “The focus of what’s happening in this district is in the right place, on the right things. What other adults are doing outside of our house, I don’t know.”
By the beginning of February, the recall of the trustees fully took shape. A group calling itself Veterans to Recall Mike Vuittonet had begun gathering signatures, but called off the effort after seeing the smooth superintendent transition and over financial worries of the potential $30,000 cost of the recall for the district. Meanwhile, Ada County received the recall signatures for the other four trustees and by the middle of the month verified them. Dean, Joki, Madsen and Sayles would all be on the recall ballot on May 17th unless they chose to step down. Dean would later tell 6 On Your Side, “I am not working against the recall and I am asking people who want to support me not to divert their time, energy and money away from our students to help me keep my seat.” She went on to say the recall feels less personal because it’s directed at an entire group. “There are statements in the recall language that are clearly false of my nature and behavior,” Dean says.
Vuittonet made it clear from the beginning he actively supported the recall effort against the four other members and reiterated the point during a recent interview. "Do I still believe the two need to be recalled? Absolutely. I still support it,” stated Vuittonet. He accused Dean and Sayles of being tied to unions, a fact Dean denies. “I believe they have more of a union lean. A union-leaning kind of sense. They were pretty pro-union and heavy union and I began to see that over a period of time,” Vuittonet says. He went on to say during our interview he was not anti-union and during his 15 years on the board says he's worked with numerous trustees who belonged to the union.
Joki and Sayles decided to file a lawsuit to try and stop the recall. They argue organizers did not collect enough signatures. A judge would hear the case in March.
The Idaho Legislature's new session had started by this time and the political maneuverings of the West Ada Board do not go unnoticed. On February 8th, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder (R-Boise) introduced a bill to allow the Governor to appoint school board members if no majority exists. When questioned if legislation like this was needed, Winder said, “Well, it certainly is the role of the legislature to establish election process for all levels of elections in the state. So it is appropriate from that aspect of it.” Winder would later pull the bill. It never saw a vote. Additional bills were also introduced, both aimed, in part, to bring school elections under the state’s Sunshine Law. They would require full disclosure of money attached to trustee recall campaigns or school levies and bonds.
The West Ada board meetings that once had only a few people attend were now packed. The February 19th special meeting brought two more twists. The board voted to extend Dr. Ranells’ contract. She will earn $162,000 to head the district in 2016-2017. In terms of base salary that’s more than former Superintendent Dr. Clark, but Dr. Clark had other benefits that, when added up, brought her salary to $177,000 according to Idaho Education News.
Also at the meeting, Julie Madsen resigned.“I’ve come to this decision after a great deal of thought. I want you to know that I have really tried to consider what’s in the best interest of everybody,” Madsen said.
Emotional during her announcement, Madsen continued. “The last thing I would say to those of you, and many of you are here tonight, who have said to me, 'Stay and fight, we want to fight with you,' I’m going to ask you instead to join me fighting for our schools, rather than fighting against adults who aren’t putting our kids first.”
By the next regularly scheduled board meeting the other three trustees up for recall had publicly stated they had no plans to resign. Joki said he would not be intimidated by the recall efforts and claimed those behind it had not been transparent. But, he said, no matter what happened, “To moms and dads, the good news is you have a fantastic superintendent. If you look at the reorganization chart that she put out, she has put at the top of the org chart – kids. And the previous administration had at the top the superintendent and trustees.” At the meeting Dean told 6 On Your Side she was worried the recall could put graduating seniors in jeopardy if there was not a quorum of the board to sign off on diplomas. “The recall date will be May 17th. That is three weeks before our seniors graduate. I am not comfortable with any possibility that our seniors’ graduations will not be able to be certified by the time they walk,” said Dean. “There are scholarships on the line. There are college admittances on the line and when it comes down to it, if I think that’s going to be problematic then I won’t stay.”
Less than two weeks after Madsen resigned the West Ada Board named her replacement. The board publicly interviewed six candidates and voted that night to appoint Philip Neuhoff to fill the Zone 4 seat. Neuhoff has two children in the district. He has his doctorate in geology from Stanford University and taught for many years in higher education in Florida before his family moved to the Treasure Valley in 2008. Last fall, Neuhoff founded a Facebook page called West Ada Files. The page is described as “a cooperative effort of concerned citizens, patrons, parents, and friends of the West Ada School District. The purpose of WAF is to serve as a public repository for primary source documents detailing the policies, practices and behaviors of the administration and Trustees of the West Ada School District.” After deciding to interview for the trustee position Neuhoff removed himself as an administrator of West Ada Files posting, “I made the conscious decision to remove myself as a member and administrator of the West Ada Files. I felt that this was necessary to preserve the integrity of this project as a source of legally obtained, reliable information.”
In a recent interview with 6 On Your Side Neuhoff said he wanted to join the board because, “Certainly there has been turmoil in the last year and it was important to a lot of parents that we have people step up to the board that can bring some stability and reason to it.” He also said, “My only ax to grind in the whole thing was my kids and making sure their education is as good as it can be. And by extension, the district serve the needs of all the other students.”
The decision to appoint Neuhoff was once again divided along similar lines with Vuittonet as the dissenting vote. Vuittonet criticized the process during his interview with 6 On Your Side calling it rushed and manipulated. Vuittonet says Neuhoff was handpicked by the remaining trustees. “Was he someone from that camp? Yep. Absolutely he was. And I don’t think anyone will deny that. But I don’t want to take away from the fact that he needs an opportunity to do what he feels is best for our kids,” said Vuittonet.
On March 23rd, after testimony a couple of weeks before, Judge Deborah Bail rejected the Joki/Sayles lawsuit. The recall would move forward in May.
Less than two weeks later, Joki would make a surprise announcement at the end of a board meeting that he was resigning, effective immediately. He would only say he did so for “personal reasons” but would not elaborate.
Just this past Tuesday four candidates interviewed for the Zone 5 seat left vacant after Joki's resignation. The board voted 3-1 to appoint Rene Ozuna. Vuittonet gave the dissenting vote stating he did not think the process had played out fairly. Ozuna has two boys in the district and a third son who graduated from Meridian High School. She is an analytics consultant with Wells Fargo Insurance. She served on the district's boundary committee and says after the experience she wanted to get more involved and started attending school board meetings. Ozuna admits she talked with both Joki and Madsen about the position and she opposes the recall. "I don't think the recall should be in place," Ozuna said. "I think it's a shame. I think we lost two really great trustees through the process."
The makeup of the West Ada Board of Trustees may or may not change on May 17th. Setting that aside, when 6 On Your Side asked the remaining board members about the future of the state’s largest school district they finally all agreed. All three who we interviewed for this story say the future for children in the West Ada School District is bright. Dean says even turmoil can have a silver lining. “The good thing that has come from it is that two years ago we would have maybe three or four people in attendance and those were one or two reporters and three or four staff,” says Dean. “We have a lot of interest now. Some people come to see what all the fuss is about. Some people come because they are engaged now because they were upset either on one side or another. And either way it’s great to have them there.” Vuittonet says no matter what happens in May, “I would say one of the biggest jobs as a board is to regain the confidence of our patrons, to regain that sense of community with our patrons.”
For parents and educators in the West Ada School District, perhaps one of the newest board member’s thoughts are the greatest encouragement moving forward. “From where I am sitting and the things that I’ve learned in my brief time on the board, I have nothing but optimism that things are only going to get even better,” says Neuhoff.
(When 6 On Your Side asked former trustee Russell Joki for an interview for this story, he declined. Former trustee Julie Madsen was not available for an interview at this time. Trustee Carol Sayles did not answer our repeated attempts to reach her for this story. Dr. Linda Clark responded to Idaho Education News that she wishes to, "Not talk at this time.")