A number of West Ada School Board (WASB) members were under a recall effort for several months.
Those recall efforts officially expired on December 28th, 2020. Rather than face a potential recall, some board members have instead chosen to resign.
One of the board members who resigned was Phillip Neuhoff. Neuhoff resigned from the West Ada Schoo on December 8th, 2020.
The board has now chosen a new member to fill that spot, Rusty Coffelt.
This is the first article in a two-part series about questions of fairness in the WASB’s trustee selection process, alleged retaliation against those who signed the recall petition, admitted open meeting violations, and an admission of a conflict of interest.
Last week, Idaho Dispatch was given a set of documents from a citizen concerned about Coffelt’s appointment to the WASB.
Idaho Dispatch has reviewed the documents and this article is our review of the material and subsequent questions to the WASB members.
Soon after the resignation of Neuhoff, the WASB announced that applicants had until January 1st, 2021 to apply to be the new Zone 4 Trustee. However, on December 30th, 2020, the deadline was moved to January 11th, 2021.
This appears to be the first time in recent history that an extension has occurred for applicants.
The decision to move the deadline for applying was done through an email from Board Chairmain Amy Johnson to the WASB Superintendent Mary Ranells with other WASB board members “CC’d” in the email.
In the email, Johnson appears to make the decision to move the deadline without the approval of other board members. One allegation is that this violated open meeting laws and that the decision to move the date should have been done by a vote from the board.
However, Johnson said in a public statement that,
The original timeline for the application was not decided by a board vote, it was an administrative decision which allowed it to be extended without board action.
Additionally, Johnson says in the email that due to the holidays, the deadline needed to be moved despite 14 applicants who had already applied.
Here is what Johnson says in the email:
The board would like to extend the Zone 4 application deadline through Jan 11 to allow for more time because of the constriction of potential applicants due to the holidays.
In her statement to the public, Johnson says she was unaware of how many candidates had already applied for the position. After the second deadline had elapsed, a total of 28 candidates (only 22 after some withdrew) had applied for the Zone 4 Trustee position.
Coffelt did not submit his application until the day after the December 29th notification that the date would be moved. Coffelt submitted his application on December 30th.
Another discussion among citizens has been the “written interview” portion of the process that some citizens claim the board had violated their own process in selecting Neuhoff because he failed to submit his written responses by the posted deadline.
Johnson had this to say about the “written interview” portion of the process:
As chair, I drafted the initial interview process that was adopted by the board on January 12 and when I was drafting that language, I specifically debated the word “asked” verus “required” as I was writing. The final version included the word “asked” mainly because I didn’t want to limit the board’s selection to one or two pieces of information, it was important to look at all of the information submitted by the applicant including the application, letters of recommendation, resume’s etc.
It was also important that a trustee not be limited in their personal ranking, that each trustee be able to create their rankings individually. That all being said, that was my intent, but I can also see how based on the language one could interpret that the written questions were required.
It is important that the intent I had when drafting was the same understanding the board had when passing the motion and the same understanding applicants within the process had.
Here is what the WASB posted to the public during a board meeting on January 12th regarding the process to narrow down the candidate pool and which all board members approved:
All candidates will be asked to complete and submit responses to posted written interview questions to the clerk by noon on January 15, 2021.
All candidates will also be asked to submit a resume with their written responses to the clerk by noon on January 15, 2021.
The the board review the written candidate answers and resumes and on January 19, 2021 the board will select 8 candidates to move on to the verbal interview round.
The 8 selected candidates will be asked to turn on their video and the board will conduct the verbal interview process and select a trustee on January 19, 2021.
Idaho Dispatch sent Johnson and the rest of the board (at that time) a question about the word “asked” versus “required” and their belief that the written portion was not required. Our question to the board was whether or not the candidates did not have to turn in a resume, turn in the written interview questions, or turn on their video for a verbal interview because the word “asked” is used in each of those sentences in describing the process.
Here is the response Johnson sent Idaho Dispatch,
We addressed all these items in a public meeting at the end of January. I would refer you back to that meeting for any quotes and or information. The meetings are recorded so you can listen in and view the video.
Idaho Dispatch also obtained an email that Johnson sent to the WASB clerk about a candidate turning in written answers after the deadline. Here is Johnson’s email to the candidate:
For fairness purposes-we need to treat all candidates the same from a deadline[
,] perspective so if the written responses were not in by the deadline they cannot be accepted.
However, Rusty Coffelt did not return any written answers prior to the deadline (January 15th, 2021) and after the board had made their selection, they accepted and posted Coffelt’s answers.
One of the other questions that Idaho Dispatch asked Johnson about was why Coffelt’s answers were accepted after the deadline and other candidate’s answers were not accepted. Johnson’s response to us was the same as the one above.
Of the eight candidates who were selected to move onto the verbal interview process, Coffelt was the only one that did not submit written answers before the deadline given by the WASB.
Coffelt’s answers were posted on January 20th, 2021, five days after the deadline:
When the time came for board members to rank their top eight candidates, Zone 1 Trustee Ed Klopfenstein chose Coffelt as one of his candidates despite his “written interview” portion not being returned in time. Klopfenstein said at the January 26th board meeting that he did not believe the written interview questions were required and that he was impressed with Coffelt’s resume.
Out of all the board members’ rankings, Klopfenstein was the only board member who ranked Coffelt in their “Top 8.”
Zone 5 Trustee Rene Ozuna at the same board meeting said she crossed out individuals who didn’t fill out the written portion of the process. Ozuna said at the meeting,
What I did in my rankings, because we had so many good applicants, I just decided to cross everybody out that didn’t fill out the written questions. I took those out of my list and did my ranking from there. That said, I have a lot of respect for the process and that every trustee got to do the ranking however they wanted to.
Zone 3 Trustee Sheena Buffi said this about her decision-making process of ranking the “Top 8” candidates,
I made my rankings shortly after being notified that the applications were posted to the website, prior to the written questions being attached.
Buffi went on to say,
There were two of my “Top 8” that didn’t make it and I was disappointed because I wanted to see those two interviewed. But at the same time I trusted the process and understood it wasn’t all about me. So I made that motion and accepted.
Buffi said she also asked the clerk if applicants who did not have written questions submitted if those candidates were still in consideration. Buffi says the clerk told her they were, they just never returned the written portion.
Finally, Trustee Johnson said the following about her selection process,
I might ask this question because I think when I listened to everybody, and we all kind of had a different way of approach, and I knew I didn’t ever intend to be required, but I also eliminated folks who didn’t respond right away because it was easy criteria to eliminate on.
Based on Johnson’s answers, both she and Ozuna both said they eliminated candidates who did not return the written questions but both defended their belief that it was not required anyway.
Idaho Dispatch reached was also able to obtain several quotes from three of the candidates who said it was clear that if the written portion was not turned in they would be disqualified.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, here are the three quotes sent to Idaho Dispatch from three different candidates:
- was a candidate. There is absolutely zero ambiguity that the written interview questions were a required part of the process. The board publicly stated and voted in the January 12th board meeting that they were not going to be willing to interview all of the candidates in person and that the written interview was a substitute for that. After the board meeting, we all received direct emails with specific instructions with a deadline to fill out the written interviews. It took us several hours as the questions were detailed. The idea that some of the board did not read or evaluate the written interviews, or that the board is now saying that they were optional just is not factual.
- Yes, the district made it clear that the questions were going to be used in making the decision. This is why there was a deadline to submit the answers before the meeting.
- An email was sent to me requiring answers to the questions. While awaiting the verbal interview, the board then chose an applicant who had not completed the questions that were required by email. For a school board vacancy, a clear, succinct, laid out application process is what applicants should be able to expect. That is not what West Ada provided. Their process was muddled with confusion, delays, new due dates and inconsistency.
Finally, Idaho Dispatch looked into concerns that some citizens have about potential retaliation against candidates who had signed the recall petition against Neuhoff.
Idaho Dispatch obtained an email from Newbold, the WASB clerk, asking Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane the following question,
I have a question. Is it possible to see who signed Phillip Neuhoff’s petition??
The question was sent to McGrane on December 15th, approximately one week after Neuhoff resigned.
At least 7 of the 28 potential candidates did sign the recall of Neuhoff and only one of those candidates received a vote to be in the “Top 8” of any board member’s selections.
However, at the January 26th meeting, the board defended receiving the list of names of those who signed the recall petition. They had a member of the Idaho School Board Association testify at the meeting on the best practices of distributing recall petition information.
Krissy LaMont, the Director of Leadership Development and Member Services testified that it was the “best practice” for a school board clerk to obtain a copy and to give it to the entire board, especially the individual being recalled to ensure that it is verified and confirmed.
It should be noted that the election clerk for the county does the verification process for the signatures and that cannot be done by the school board itself.
Idaho Dispatch sent an email to both the WASB and LaMont to ask why it would be best practice for them to have the information since it is already verified by the county clerk. We wanted to ask both parties what the information would be useful for and if any of the members used the list to disqualify potential candidates because they did sign it.
None of the parties Idaho Dispatch reached out to about the alleged “retaliation” responded with a comment other than Johnson’s initial comment or Ozuna’s deference to Johnson.
In “Part 2” of this series Idaho Dispatch will cover alleged and admitted “open meeting violations” as well as a “conflict of interest” disclosed by Trustee Klopfenstein.
Let us know in the comments below what you think about this story and how the appointment process was handled.
Tags: Amy Johnson, Ed Klopfenstein, Education, Krissy LaMont, Mary Ranells, Phil McGrane, Phillip Neuhoff, Rene Ozuna, Sheena Buffi, West Ada School Board