The Public Charter School Commission appeared to violate Idaho’s open meeting law during a closed-door meeting in April, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office said Thursday.
In a 13-page report and in a two-page letter to commission Chairman Alan Reed, Wasden’s office said it had “probable cause” to pursue an open meeting complaint, on several counts. Among the possible violations: The commission appeared to discuss topics that should have been addressed in a public setting, not a closed executive session.
Idaho Education News received the report and letter Thursday, through a public records request. Minutes after these documents went public, the commission admitted to the violations.
“Reed agrees with the attorney general’s conclusion that mistakes were made,” said Mike Keckler, a spokesman for the State Board of Education, which oversees the commission. “The commission is working to schedule a special meeting as soon as possible to formally consider the A.G.’s recommendations. That meeting will be properly noticed and open to the public.”
The admission seemed to address at least one recommendation from Wasden’s office. In order to rectify the situation, Wasden’s office said the commission should publicly acknowledge the violations, set aside any actions resulting from the illegal meeting and schedule a training session within 60 days.
The attorney general’s office says it could pursue a civil complaint, if the commission fails to act on the recommendations.
For now, at least, Thursday’s findings represent yet another public rebuke of the commission — a panel of state appointees that oversees nearly three-fourths of Idaho’s 56 charter schools. The commission has the authority to approve or reject charter school applications across the state, and to decide whether existing schools’ operating charters should be renewed.
The meeting, in a nutshell
On April 11, the charter commission held an executive session, a closed-door meeting. The details became public in June, when the charter commission inadvertently released a recording of the meeting.
During the two-hour meeting, charter commissioners were sharply critical of several charter schools and their leaders. They lamented lax financial management and low student performance at several charter schools. They singled out test scores at Heritage Academy — a Jerome charter school with high student poverty rates and a large Hispanic population. At one point, Reed expressed regret that Heritage remained open. At another point in the meeting, someone suggested Heritage administrator Christine Ivie applauded the low test scores, since her school would qualify for increased funding.
“Christine should run a social service agency, not a school,” one commissioner said.
The legal questions
State law allows public agencies to deliberate in a closed-door “executive session” for any one of several reasons. For instance, agencies can go behind closed doors to discuss documents and data that would otherwise be exempt from public release.
The commission has maintained it went behind closed doors, under direction from Wasden’s office, to review confidential student data sets. But the commission did discuss aggregate student test scores for Heritage, scores that are available on the State Department of Education’s website. And after reviewing the audio, charter advocates blasted the commission for discussing the prospect of closing schools. “This is a discussion that needed to be had in an open meeting, not behind a closed door,” the Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center said in a statement in June.
Ultimately, Wasden received four complaints about the April 11 meeting — including one from Heritage and a second from Heritage’s attorney. At that point, Wasden was obligated to investigate.
Even before Wasden weighed in, Gov. Brad Little said the commission probably violated the open meeting law over the course of the discussion.
“Long executive sessions are the devil’s playground,” Little told Idaho Education News last week.
What went wrong?
“Based upon the lengthy and meandering discussion within the executive session, it appears possible to identify numerous potential violations of the (open meeting law),” Wasden’s office said its report.
Among the litany of problems:
- The conversation “drifted” from the topic of student data. Commissioners criticized Heritage Academy and Jerome; at one point, one commissioner said, “Who would ever send their kids there?” Commissioners also discussed the politics of turning down an application to renew a school charter. “On several occasions, the (commission) discussed how it should approach members of the Legislature in advance of denial in order to achieve political buy-in.”
- The commission discussed the performance of some charter administrators, including Ivie. A public agency can discuss personnel issues in executive session — provided the topic is listed on a meeting agenda. The April 11 agenda contains no such reference, alluding only to a discussion of student data.
- No one at the meeting spoke up and said the commission needed to get back on topic — a criticism that Wasden extended to his own staff. “Late within the executive session, the deputy attorney general present encouraged the (commission) to go back into an open meeting because the executive session materials had been concluded. However, by that point the discussion during executive session had impermissibly drifted without corrective action.”
A growing rift
The April meeting has driven a wedge between the commission and some charter school advocates.
Reed later apologized for the release of the audio. But as charter advocates questioned the legality of the meeting, they also expressed outrage at the commission’s remarks about students and charter leaders.
“We are experiencing an obvious anti-charter bias inside the very commission that is supposed to support and approve charter schools in Idaho,” said Tom LeClaire, president of the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families, in an email to supporters. “We know Idaho charter schools will never get due process from this charter commission or staff.”
In a July 16 guest opinion, and in a sharp public rebuke of the commission, State Board President Debbie Critchfield called the tone of the meeting hurtful. “I will not make excuses for comments that disparage individuals, schools or communities,” said Critchfield, who added that the commission will receive training on how to hold “appropriate discussions” about school performance.
For some charter advocates, the damage appears to be already done.
Heritage Academy officials want to move out from under the charter commission’s purview; the school has asked the Jerome School District to take over as its authorizing body. Meanwhile, the families’ coalition has called on the state to disband the charter commission, in favor of a new third-party group.
These governance questions arose Wednesday night, when Republican legislative leaders held a town hall meeting in Twin Falls.
In an Idaho Education News interview Thursday, House Speaker Scott Bedke cited “trust issues” stemming from the leaked audio from April, and said he favors moving Heritage Academy under the Jerome district’s jurisdiction. He didn’t rule out a new or revised state charter commission, but at this point, he said, “(that’s) not what most people want.”
The House speaker appoints two of the commission’s seven members. The Senate’s president pro tem appoints two members and the governor appoints three members.
On Thursday, the charter families’ coalition applauded Wasden’s findings. But the group renewed its call for change, saying the commission has created a “toxic atmosphere” for Idaho charter schools.
“This illegal meeting is not about one school or a handful of schools,” the coalition said in a statement. “So many charter school administrators are afraid to speak out due to fear of retaliation by the commission and staff. All of Idaho’s students deserve better, no matter which school they attend, or which public school option their parents chose for them.”
But other charter advocates expressed confidence in the commission — and said it performs a valuable role in holding charter schools accountable and protecting Idaho tax dollars.
“It is very important to the well-being and reputation of Idaho’s charter school community and the integrity of the commission charged with maintaining it that the executive session issue remain isolated from the fine work of the commission and its staff,” said Dan Nicklay of the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy. “Please know that the opinions of the vocal minority of underperforming charter schools does not represent those of the majority.”
Idaho Education News reporter Devin Bodkin contributed to this report.