IDAHO FALLS — White Pine Charter School trustees acknowledged that their process for launching an investigation into the fairness of a recent school board election may have violated Idaho’s open meeting law.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened, and it wasn’t intentional,” said board chair Adam Frugoli.
Frugoli and two other White Pine trustees voted unanimously Monday to acknowledge the possible violation, which occurred during a May 30 executive session in which trustees discussed launching an investigating into allegations of wrongdoing during the board’s May election.
The board never publicly approved the investigation in an open meeting but still paid attorney Doug Nelson at least $10,877 to probe the allegations.
Idaho’s open meeting law requires the formation of public policy to be conducted in open meetings.
Idaho Education News first reported on the investigation last week, after learning that it included a taxpayer obligation.
Before acknowledging the possible violation Monday, Frugoli justified the board’s investigation into allegations that White Pine trustee Joanna Stark may have “rigged” the election.
“When acknowledgments of improprieties or perhaps illegal behavior happens and staff bring up concerns … I believe it is good governance to investigate whether those claims are true or false,” Frugoli said before casting his vote.
Frugoli last week defended the process for launching the probe, yet after consulting with “several attorneys” told EdNews that the board may have violated open meeting law. He told EdNews the board would acknowledge the possible violation during a Sept. 3 board meeting.
Frugoli said Tuesday that the board moved the meeting to an earlier time to secure enough members to vote on the matter.
Stark motioned Monday to acknowledge that the board violated Idaho’s open meeting law during the May 30 closed-door meeting. Board treasurer Gina Stevenson said she wasn’t a board member on May 30, and didn’t feel comfortable conclusively acknowledging a violation.
Frugoli was also reluctant to acknowledge a definite violation.
“I don’t acknowledge that there was an open meeting violation, but there could be,” Frugoli said.
Stark then re-motioned by stating that the board “may have” violated open meeting law. Stark, Stevenson and Frugoli all voted to make the acknowledgement. Trustees Joni Larsen and Ethan Huffman did not attend the video-conferenced meeting.
In a final report of the investigation, Nelson said he found “no conclusive evidence that unlawful electioneering occurred” during the board election. Days later, he issued a “supplementary” report saying that witnesses later came forth with statements that Stark had made “strong statements of advocacy” for school board candidates Emma Lee Robinson and Amber Beck.
Still, Nelson based his opinion that no electioneering occurred during the election on White Pine’s status as a nonprofit organization under Idaho law. Unlike school districts, which are expected to adhere to the state’s Public Integrity in Elections Act, charter schools’ nonprofit status grants them the freedom to operate elections under their own bylaws.
Stark, who led a committee charged with overseeing the election, has denied telling “anyone how to vote (or) who to vote for.” In a 10-page letter dated May 31, she said she disagreed with the board’s decision to investigate the matter “internally” and “quietly.”
Nelson’s report also details a range of problems related to the school’s handling of the election, including no log for tracking who had voted and paper ballots that were “inadvertently” soiled by spilled milk and thrown away afterward.
White Pine attorney Bret Walther Monday walked Frugoli, Stark and Stevenson through the process of acknowledging a possible violation.
Frugoli said the board will receive training from the Idaho School Boards Association as a result of the possible violation.