A.G.’s office will investigate charter commission meeting

The attorney general’s office is investigating a complaint against the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, stemming from a controversial closed-door commission meeting.

During the closed April 11 meeting, the commission’s appointed members decried flagging performance and financial “malpractice” at some charter schools. At one point, commission chairman Alan Reed voiced regret for allowing one charter school, Heritage Academy in Jerome, to remain open. The commission inadvertently released audio of the meeting in response to a separate public records request.

Charter school advocates have contended the two-hour executive session violated the state’s Open Meetings Law. Reed has said the meeting was legal, but he has apologized for the accidental release of the audio.

Heritage Academy requested the attorney general’s investigation.

“The commission is the judge and jury for a large number of charter schools,” Joe Borton, the school’s attorney, told the Twin Falls Times-News last week. “When they show apparent bias and disregard, it calls into question the fairness of their oversight.”

Under the state’s open meetings law, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is obligated to investigate Heritage’s complaint, Wasden spokeswoman Kriss Bivens Cloyd said Monday.

“We have no further comment at this time,” she said.

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Under state law, government entities can hold closed executive sessions for several reasons. For example, agencies can meet behind closed doors to discuss records that are exempt from public disclosure. Reed has said the commission discussed confidential student data sets during the April 11 meeting.

But one of the most contentious points from the meeting centered on publicly available schoolwide data.

Commissioners discussed Heritage’s lackluster scores on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test — numbers that are posted on the State Department of Education’s website. At another point, one person in the meeting said Heritage administrator Christine Ivie applauded the low scores, because this would allow her school to receive additional funding.

Borton has disputed this claim.  And in a statement to the Times-News, Ivie said Heritage’s student growth rates mirror numbers for the state and the Jerome School District.

Wasden’s investigation comes amidst a growing rift between the commission and advocates for schools under the commission’s oversight.

Following the release of the April 11 audio, Heritage and the embattled Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center issued news releases criticizing the commission. Heritage and Blackfoot operate under the commission, which serves as the charters’ authorizing body. The commission authorizes nearly three fourths of Idaho’s 56 charter schools.

Blackfoot has had a particularly thorny relationship with the state. The commission ordered an extensive forensic audit of finances at the Blackfoot charter and Bingham Academy. In a May letter to the Bingham County prosecutor’s office, Reed said the charter schools’ outgoing founder, Fred Ball, may have violated the state’s bribery and corrupt influence laws.

Idaho Coalition of Charter School Families President Tom LeClaire has called the commission’s April 11 meeting “disgusting,” since it indicates a willingness to favor some charter schools while undercutting others. On Monday, he urged charter advocates and parents to take their case to elected officials and the State Board of Education.

“We know (commissioners) plan to close our schools — because, they said so,” LeClaire said in an email. “We know Idaho charter schools will never get due process from this charter commission or staff.”

 

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