Charter commission orders online school to close permanently

An online school that serves some 500 K-12 students will have to close for good this summer.

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission voted unanimously Friday to not renew Another Choice Virtual Charter School’s performance certificate, which means the school must start the process of closing its doors by June 30, 2022.

The decision followed an emotional hearing about issues at the Nampa-based online school that specializes in serving at-risk students. Issues ranged from low and stagnate academic achievement to board and administrative oversight issues.

Closing a school is a rare move for the commission, which considers renewals for 58 of Idaho’s 77 charter schools on five-year cycles. The commission has closed just one other school since charters began operating in Idaho 21 years ago.

Commissioners keyed in on various leadership problems at Another Choice on Friday, including several teachers who testified that they knew nothing about improvement conditions the commission had placed on the school prior to the hearing.

Commissioner Julie VanOrden said she was “disturbed” by the lack of communication between administrators and staff regarding the conditions.

Confusion around leadership on the school’s board also surfaced.

“The board isn’t even sure who the board is,” said Commissioner Nils Peterson, adding that local leaders have been “drifting along.”

Other concerns stemmed from prior upheaval at the school. A Nov. 15 report obtained by Idaho EdNews outlined commission staff’s concerns that the school’s former board chair, Kevin McLaren, and its head administrator, Laura Sandidge, violated Idaho ethics laws by benefiting from a contract between the school and Advocates for Inclusion, a developmental disability company. A state ethics commission disciplined Sandidge in April for authorizing payments to the company. Authorities investigated, but the local prosecutor did not pursue criminal charges.

McLaren resigned after the commission’s investigation. Sandidge is still head administrator, according to the school’s website.

The school’s attorney acknowledged problems at the school, and promised that it would overhaul its administration. He also asked commissioners to consider where the school’s high population of at-risk learners would end up if it was forced to close.

Parents testified that the school has been a lifeline for kids who struggled in a traditional school setting.

Commission chair Alan Reed said he felt bad for the school’s students and teachers and asked how the commission could “punish” them for the “catastrophic failure at the top.”

Peterson said the school’s leaders are “punishing these students.”

Another Choice has struggled on a range of academic indicators over the years. Last year, just under half of its high school seniors graduated, compared to the state average of just over 80%. Click here for a rundown of the student achievement at the school in recent years.

Another Choice serves about 500 students and has physical locations across the Treasure Valley. It annually spends about $4 million in taxpayer dollars.

Commissioners conditionally renewed the performance certificate of a partial virtual charter, Richard McKenna, Friday afternoon. Those conditions included various academic improvements over the next five years and a 1,200-student cap on the school’s enrollment.

EdNews covered Friday’s meeting remotely.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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