Commission Votes Against Superintendent Consolidation

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County commissioners voted against consolidating the county Superintendent’s Office with the Treasurer’s Office, opting instead to form a committee to study other money-saving possibilities and address the issue at a later date.

A standing-room-only crowd attended the Jan. 4 public hearing, with many speaking out against the consolidation. The merger, championed by Commissioner Joe Brenneman, would have eliminated the county superintendent’s position and redistributed the responsibilities to the county treasurer and contracted personnel.

The move would have been a disservice to Flathead County taxpayers, county Superintendent Marcia Sheffels said, because it had not been adequately studied.

“There will be consequences at this point in time, not results,” Sheffels said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Sheffels also called the potential consolidation an “eleventh-hour proposal,” and that holding the public hearings during the holiday season with little time to prepare was “irresponsible and insulting.”

Brenneman and Commissioner Dale Lauman voted to consider the consolidation at a Dec. 15 meeting. Brenneman held another public meeting on Dec. 29 to discuss a draft plan for the consolidation.

The proposed consolidation required a decision by Jan. 14 – the opening day to file for elected office. If the county superintendent’s position were eliminated, people would need to know there was no longer an office to run for, Brenneman said.

Many people at the public hearing decried this timeline, calling it rushed and inappropriate. There were also accusations of political agendas or vendettas against the superintendent’s office, theories Brenneman adamantly denied.

Other speakers said the treasurer would be overburdened with the additional responsibilities and that a professional educator needed to be involved. County Treasurer Adele Krantz told the commission that she was not qualified for the new responsibilities and that she opposed the consolidation.

In the draft plan, all financial functions currently performed by the county superintendent’s office would have continued through the county’s finance department. The plan estimated that it would only take one full-time employee to complete these tasks.

The draft plan also concluded that clerical work – such as recording teacher certifications; notifying school districts of noncompliance; registering home school students – could be performed more efficiently through an office administrator reporting to the treasurer’s office or through contracted work.

Sheffels disagreed with splitting the office’s duties, saying that it would splinter accountability. It was also noted that her work hours can extend well beyond the usual 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, and a contracted worker would need to be paid overtime for those hours.

“Contracting out is the opposite of being fiscally responsible,” Sheffels said. “It can easily get out of control.”

At previous meetings, Brenneman said the consolidation could save county taxpayers $570,000 over four years. He cited a 1994 task force study commissioned by former Gov. Marc Racicot, which concluded that the Office of Public Instruction could acquire many of the services provided by county superintendents.

Brenneman said the consolidation would ensure that the same services are provided to the county’s 23 school districts for about $125,000 less than the office’s current annual budget of $267,693. If the consolidation had passed, it would have been effective in 2011, giving the commission a year to work out the details, Brenneman said.

Opponents to the consolidation questioned the 1994 study, asking why other commissions had not used the recommendations before. Donna Maddox, a former Flathead County superintendent, said the task force study had forced the county to research the possible elimination before and it was decided money would not be saved.

Whitefish School District Superintendent Jerry House said it would be detrimental to remove the county superintendent because it is a vital resource for smaller schools. He also said services would be lost if the office was eliminated, costing more than any money saved.

Many people, including Mayor Tammi Fisher, asked the commission to consider all aspects of a consolidation before voting to eliminate the office. Joel Voytoski, superintendent of the Evergreen school district, said he was concerned with the lack of detail in the draft plan.

“Until you can provide a plan that details how those services are going to be provided in a different way and the costs associated with that plan, you need to take a step back,” Voytoski said.

The commissioners voted to study the consolidation further, creating a committee to do so over the next year. Lauman insisted the proposal was not as rushed as some people thought, but more study could be beneficial.

Commissioner Jim Dupont said he was not against the idea of consolidation in general, but the current proposal was moving too fast.

“There may be ways to save money with the superintendent of schools but that doesn’t indicate to me that that’s an elimination,” Dupont said.

Brenneman asserted that the financial figures were correct and any business on Main Street wouldn’t think twice about consolidating – a comment that produced audible negative reactions from the crowd.

“This is only about reducing government and about running government like a business, two things we hear from people all the time,” Brenneman said.