Wednesday, May 27, 2009

School leaders at odds on 'super' replacement

Newly elected trustees say Barber selection should be ‘reopened’


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County School District's newly elected trustees think the hiring of a replacement for retiring Superintendent Jim Lewis should be reconsidered when Lewis leaves office a year from now.

However, current board members claim that Assistant Superintendent Lonnie Barber was hired two years ago as Lewis' intended replacement and that the hiring process does not need to be reconsidered or reopened.

"That's chicken-crap politics," said Trustee Kim Nilsen, who was defeated in last week's school board election. "For them to come back and say we're going to do this again is immoral, unethical and just wrong.

"If that was the intention of those two men, then that was dishonest. Surely this hasn't transpired in a week's time. It sounds to me like if they had an agenda then they should have put it on the table. I think they're chicken for not saying it up front."

Nilsen was referring to Steve Guthrie and Paul Bates, who were elected to the school board on May 19. Guthrie defeated Nilsen in the Zone 2 election, which includes the south Hailey area, while Bates defeated board Chairwoman Alexandra Sundali in Zone 4, which includes the west Ketchum area.

Guthrie and Bates will be sworn into office at the school board meeting on July 14. Until then, Nilsen and Sundali remain in power.

The school board is expected to approve Barber's contract for another year when it meets on June 9.

Barber was hired as assistant superintendent in 2007 in a national job search for Lewis' replacement. A four-page advertisement was published by the school district that states that the job was for an "assistant superintendent to train to replace the current superintendent, who plans to retire in the next two to three years."

The school district announced earlier this month that Lewis will retire at the end of the next school year and that Barber remains his intended replacement.

According to the school district, Lewis' current annual salary is $166,938, while Barber is earning $124,000 per year.

Barber, a former superintendent for the Caldwell School District, declined a three-year contract extension there when he accepted the job in Blaine County.

Nilsen pointed out that the public was involved two years ago in selecting Barber for the job and that there is no reason now to second guess that decision.

"We were absolutely unanimous in support of him when he was hired," Nilsen said. "It would be a foolish mistake and it would be immoral to start all over again. He came here in good faith and we hired him in good faith.

"I think they (Guthrie and Bates) had special interests from the get-go. That's turning our school children's education into a political game."

Both Guthrie and Bates denied that they represent special interests, or that Lewis' succession was a "hidden agenda" item for their campaigns.

Neither man campaigned on the succession issue, and the matter only became public on May 13 at a candidate's public forum in Hailey.

"We're not doing anything wrong," Bates said Friday. "My reservations are about the process. My reservations about Dr. Barber are not a personal issue. I've heard from a very substantial number of people who have reservations about Dr. Barber.

"What I've heard is that he may not be the absolute best choice we could have for superintendent. And if the school district was to take a complete poll of all its employees—and it would have to be done anonymously because a lot of people are scared of the school district—it would come out that a lot of people think someone else would be better for the job."

Bates declined to say whether he had anyone else in mind.

"My personal reservation is how the process of choosing Dr. Barber took place," Bates said. "I question the authenticity of a truly public representation on the selection committee. I'm more than happy to be proved wrong on that, but that's my instinct and that's just how I feel. I have not bought into the idea that he is the very best we can do for our children."

Guthrie and Bates expect that the school board will renew Barber's contract in June, but said that his succession to superintendent should be reconsidered when Lewis retires.

"When Jim decides to leave next year, and Dr. Lewis' position becomes vacant, I think that the job should be opened up for a hiring process," Guthrie said. "When I take the oath of office, then that's a topic that I'll have to bring up with my fellow board members. At that time, the hiring process would probably be very favorable to Dr. Barber. I have nothing against Dr. Barber, and that was not my platform for running."

Sundali, meanwhile, declined to speculate on a possible agenda that Guthrie and Bates might have.

"If that was part of their agenda, that's too bad," she said. "They should have looked more thoroughly into what we already did. Time will tell what their agenda is.

"Our new school board members have a lot to learn about how school boards operate."

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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