Charter commission expedites improvement deadlines for embattled charter school

BOISE — An embattled Blackfoot charter school will be required to make financial fixes within a month and improve academic outcomes within a year if it wants to stay open.

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission voted Friday to tighten several academic, operational and financial improvement deadlines previously recommended to Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center.

In January, the Idaho attorney general’s office outlined a range of improvements required for Blackfoot to have its charter renewed. The school agreed to meet the conditions, and the commission’s seven-member board had the option to accept those conditions.

After a three-hour discussion, commissioners accepted the financial conditions but voted to shorten the timeline by three months.

By April 1, Blackfoot will be required to:

  • Separate operations and finances from another Blackfoot charter, Bingham Academy, and an on-site daycare center for the children of Blackfoot employees. Blackfoot closed the daycare last month.
  • Verify that Blackfoot is no longer using prepaid credit cards loaded with school funds.
  • Verify use of a purchase order system to ensure all expenditures are documented and approved in advance.

Commission Director Tamara Baysinger said Blackfoot has a purchase order system but hasn’t been using it.

“Four months of not having a system … makes me very uncomfortable,” said commissioner Brian Scigliano.

Other approved changes dealt with improving the school’s academics. By June 30, 2020, Blackfoot must earn at least 48 percent on the academic section of the commission’s performance framework. The school must increase this score to 55 percent by June 30, 2021, as opposed to 52 percent previously outlined by the attorney general’s office.

Blackfoot and Bingham each receive state funding based on average daily attendance. The schools together serve about 750 students, with budgets totaling some $4.3 million.

Fred Ball is the head administrator at both schools. He did not attend Friday’s board meeting. Instead, Blackfoot principal Debbie Steele and administrator Kelly Jo Fisk addressed commissioners and answered questions for more than three hours about the school’s financial and academic history.

Steele and Fisk expressed a willingness to comply with the recommendations, which still need to be approved by Blackfoot trustees. Fisk told commissioners Ball is planning to retire at the end of the school year.

The commission has been investigating Blackfoot and Bingham Academy for months over allegations of questionable internal controls and financial practices. Baysinger spent three days at the schools in February, interviewing trustees and examining documents. She concluded the schools lacked “strong internal controls” which has lead to “overall financial distress,” according to letters she wrote to board members.

The state will pay for a forensic audit to review past use of public funds at Blackfoot. Forensic audits of public schools are very rare.

Idaho Education News began investigating expenditures at Bingham and Blackfoot in December and found financial records to be missing or unavailable, especially reimbursement records to Ball.

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