Charter commission to visit two schools under investigation

BLACKFOOT —  The Idaho Public Charter School Commission will next week visit two Blackfoot charter schools as part of its investigation into allegations of financial mismanagement.

The commission’s three-day visit to Bingham Academy and Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center will allow charter commission director Tamara Baysinger and a member of her staff to interview the schools’ trustees about financials and examine documents the commission has yet to receive as part of its investigation into the schools, Baysinger told Idaho Education News Tuesday.

Tamara Baysinger

“We’ve reviewed the documents they’ve given so far, but they haven’t produced everything,” Baysinger said.

The commission began investigating both Blackfoot-based schools in December over allegations from a then-current trustee and a past trustee at Blackfoot. These allegations included a lack of transparency regarding school finances — “questionable internal controls and financial practices.” The commission is also investigating “inappropriately addressed allegations of sexual misconduct by school employees.”

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

A financial inquiry into the schools by EdNews revealed multiple unexplained checks to Fred Ball, head administrator at both Bingham and Blackfoot. These checks included a $22,099.37 payout to Ball for “modulars and other expenses.” Ball told EdNews he resold to Blackfoot two modulars he purchased from Salt Lake Community College for the “spectacularly low price” of $16,000 or “what he had into them.” The college says it has no documentation of selling modulars to Ball, though Blackfoot reimbursed him $16,000 for their purchase.

The school’s business manager, Randy Ruger, also received a series of payouts from Bingham from August 2017 to August 2018, including eight checks, each worth $939.07, all cashed on Aug. 21, 2018. Ball, who on that same day cashed a series of his own checks from the school, each worth $855.60, said the successive payments were payroll checks the men decided to hold for months before cashing in order to help the school weather the prospect of a “large number of upfront expenditures.”

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Commission oversees at least 40 schools

Created by the Legislature in 2004, the commission is Idaho’s largest public charter school authorizer, overseeing more than 40 schools — around 75 percent of Idaho charters. School districts and universities can also authorize charters.

The commission is made up of Baysinger’s three-person staff and seven commissioners, each serving four-year terms. The governor appoints three of these commissioners; the Senate pro tempore and speaker of the House each appoint two. The State Board of Education employs Baysinger and members of her staff, though they are assigned to work specifically for the public charter commission.

The charter commission’s investigation into the schools is not a criminal investigation, though its findings could determine the schools’ renewal status. Every five years, the commission reviews each of its schools as part of the process for renewing their charters. Academics play a predominant role in the process, Baysinger said, though finances and operations are also examined. Depending on the commission’s findings, a school can either be renewed, renewed on certain conditions set by the commission or non-renewed.

Blackfoot is in the middle of its renewal process, Baysinger said, with a final decision scheduled for March. Bingham is up for renewal in 2022.

The commission occasionally steps in to provide oversight of its schools, Baysinger said.

“It is ultimately the responsibility of the schools’ boards to oversee practices and outcomes,” Baysinger said. “However, the authorizer takes appropriate action if that’s not done.”

The commission’s visit to the schools will span Tuesday through Thursday next week.

Blackfoot is located in East Idaho, about 25 miles north of Pocatello.

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