Charter commissioners discuss financial ‘malpractice’, low performance and closing schools in leaked audio

Leaked audio from a closed-door Idaho Public School Charter Commission meeting revealed frustration among commissioners over continued low performance of some schools, financial “malpractice” and the prospect of closing schools that continue to struggle.

Unaware a two-hour recording of their executive session would be released to the public, commissioners criticized some charter school administrators, expressed regret for allowing one school to continue operating and suggested the Idaho School Boards Association misled the commission during a public meeting.

The audio became public when the commission accidentally included it in a public records request for the recording of an earlier open meeting, commission director Tamara Baysinger told Idaho Education News.

Heritage Academy Charter and Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center wrote press releases after hearing the audio. Blackfoot claimed the meeting violated Idaho’s open meetings law.

“The commission spent a great deal of time discussing in executive session how they could convince the legislature and governor’s office why it is necessary to close some charter schools in Idaho. This is a discussion that needed to be had in an open meeting, not behind a closed door,” Blackfoot said in a statement.

Both schools criticized the commission for comments they view as insensitive toward the residents of Jerome, where Heritage is located. Commission chair Alan Reed said in a statement that the schools mischaracterized some of his comments during the meeting.

Reed also defended the commissioners and said they did not violate Idaho’s open meetings law because data sets on display during the meeting drove the need “to keep individual student information confidential.” This direction came from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, Reed said, and an attorney attended the closed-door meeting to ensure conversations complied with state law.

Reed did apologize for the accidental release of the recording, calling it a mistake that “did not do very well for children” who attend the schools discussed in the recording. “I am sorry about that and sincerely apologize to (the children),” Reed said in a statement.

During the meeting, one commissioner outlined Heritage trustees’ tendency to “rubber stamp” whatever the school’s superintendent Christine Ivie says. Baysinger told the commission that Heritage’s school board “doesn’t want to deal with hard stuff” and would rather find an administrator “who tells them what they want to hear.”

Ivie did not respond to Idaho Education News’ request for comment on this story.

Heritage and Blackfoot both have a history with the commission.

The commission conducted a months-long investigation of both Blackfoot and Bingham Academy. In March, the investigation culminated in a $20,000 forensic audit of finances at the Blackfoot schools. Reed last month wrote a letter to the Bingham County prosecutor, outlining his concerns that the schools’ outgoing administrator, Fred Ball, may have violated Idaho’s bribery and corrupt influence laws and other state codes.

‘That’s Malpractice’

Much of the closed-door discussion revolved around Heritage’s extremely low student performance.

Baysinger illustrated to commissioners that only 13 percent of children at Heritage are proficient in math and only 17 percent are proficient in English language arts, according to ISAT testing. The Jerome School District’s proficiency rates were 30 percent in math and 39 percent in ELA, Baysinger pointed out. Statewide, 44 percent of students reached proficiency in math and 54 percent reached proficiency in ELA.

Someone on the audio said Ivie “broke my heart” by expressing happiness at the school’s descent into the state’s 5 percent of lowest performing schools, because low performance means “more money” for the school.

“That’s malpractice,” someone else is heard to say on the recording.

Heritage’s attorney, Joseph Borton, told EdNews that the commissioner’s claim about Ivie being happy over low performance is “not accurate.”

Heritage qualified for $87,098 in federal funds for falling among the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Reed is heard on the audio saying commissioners should not have renewed Heritage’s charter. The school’s students would have been better served by the Jerome School District, Reed added, and money used to fund the charter could have instead flowed to the local school district.

“Christine should run a social service agency, not a school,” another commissioner is heard to say.

Borton said the Heritage trustees on Wednesday released a unanimous vote of confidence in Ivie.

‘Come on, ISBA, tell the truth’

Commissioners expressed frustration with the Idaho School Boards Association and some charter school trustees during the closed meeting.

Amid its investigation into finances at Blackfoot, the commission required the schools’ trustees to undergo training from ISBA.

Reed suggested ISBA did not tell the truth about its work with Blackfoot during a public meeting held before the executive session. “Come on, ISBA, tell the truth,” Reed said in the recording. Reed later expressed regret that ISBA had “sadly misinformed” the commission.

Reed told EdNews that this statement stemmed from his belief that it’s unlikely that Blackfoot trustees had made the improvements ISBA had previously reported in an open meeting.

“It’s hard to turn something around that fast,” Reed told EdNews.

ISBA executive director Karen Echeverria said Blackfoot trustees participated in “hours of intensive trainings, including conducting thorough administrator evaluations, and how to govern with their school’s budget properly.”

“We take pride in the work we have done and will continue to offer our quality services to schools,” Echeverria said.

Blackfoot trustee Dan Cravens, who publicly criticized the commission after the recording was released, told EdNews he’s grateful for the training his school board received from ISBA. He said it felt to him like the commission has a larger issue with the ISBA.

The commission also outlined concerns and some praise for at least three other schools that it previously flagged for low performance. Click here to listen to the entire audio.

The commission serves under the State Board of Education and oversees at least 50 Idaho public charters. The schools include some of the state’s highest and lowest performing.

Since its inception in 2005, the commission has closed just one Idaho charter school.

Charter enrollment is growing in Idaho. Last year, the enrollment topped 24,000 — about 8 percent of the state’s overall enrollment. Charters are expected to enroll hundreds more children this fall.

EdNews data analyst Randy Schrader contributed data and information for this report. 

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].

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday