Charter commission flags finances at three of its schools

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission put three of its schools on notice regarding finances Thursday.

Commissioners voted during a Zoom meeting to leave in place “notifications of fiscal concern” for Bingham Academy and the Village Charter School, which both received the same notifications last year. Commissioners also issued a notification for Boise-based Peace Valley Charter School.     

The notifications aren’t punitive per se, but they do provide a thin layer of protection to taxpayers in the event of a school’s midyear closure. State payments to public schools, including charters, are typically frontloaded toward the beginning of the school year. Charters put on financial notice receive equal payments throughout the year in order to avoid a loss of larger state allocations.

Director Jenn Thompson walked commissioners through issues her staff identified at the schools ahead of Thursday’s meeting:

  • Bingham Academy’s finances improved “some” since last year, Thompson said, but its year-end fund balance was $18,182 in the red. Bingham has also struggled to maintain enrollment — a measure tied to funding, since the state bases school payments largely on average daily attendance. Bingham maintained 84 percent of its students through this year’s midterm enrollment count. The commission’s standard is 95 percent.
  • The Village maintained just 64 percent of its projected enrollment through this year’s midterm count. Yet discussion hinged largely on an operating loan that has helped the school establish a fund balance of $479,000 and cash flow of $292,000. While the money has kept the school afloat, commissioners Sherrilynn Bair and Brian Scigliano expressed concerns over a lack of documentation supporting the school’s claim that the bond holder will extend the loan’s repayment. “We don’t have any solid evidence,” Bair said.
  • Peace Valley’s first two years of operation have been “bumpy,” said Thompson. While the school’s year-end fund balance and cash flow meet the commission’s standards, it maintained only 73 percent of its midterm enrollment count. Despite savings and some extra cash, Peace Valley’s debt-service coverage ratio also falls below the commission’s standard.

Commissioners opted not to issue letters of concern for Project Impact STEM Academy and Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center, despite recommendations from Thompson and her staff to do so.

Blackfoot also received a notification of concern last year. This year, the school maintained just 79 percent of its projected enrollment through the midterm count. The decline forced local leaders to slash around 10 positions, head administrator Craig Gerard told commissioners. These and other adjustments prompted Thompson to label her recommendation to leave the notification of concern in place a “conservative” one. Commissioners voted 4-3 to lift Blackfoot’s notification.

Commissioners voted unanimously to discontinue Syringa Mountain Charter School’s notification from last year, citing a financial turnaround that commissioner Wanda Quinn called “phenomenal.”

A new accountability model

Thompson also walked staff through proposed revisions to the commission’s accountability model, which commissioners use to make charter-renewal decisions.

The revisions would ease up and streamline performance expectations for more than 60 charters under the commission’s purview, including:

  • Aligning data-reporting requirements with those placed on traditional schools, “for the sake of efficiency in school reporting and data analysis.”
  • Placing added emphasis on student-growth indicators, as opposed to learning outcomes.
  • Comparing learning outcomes to schools with “like attributes.”
  • Simplifying the process for calculating high school graduation rates.

Commissioners won’t vote on the revisions until August. The recommendations will remain on the commission’s webpage for public view and feedback until that time, Thompson said. Click here and scroll to page 41 for a full rundown.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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