Updated in August, 2021 to add new information from the Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Idaho charter school administrator Laura Sandidge and the Another Choice Virtual Charter board of directors authorized hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer spending to companies Sandidge co-owns, without following proper ethics procedures, the Idaho Professional Standards Commission found.
Sandidge, Head of School at the charter, was issued a letter of reprimand by the Professional Standards Commission (PSC) early in April following what commissioners said were violations of state statute and the State Board of Education’s code of ethics.
Sandidge didn’t admit to violating laws or ethics rules, but agreed that there was sufficient evidence for the charter commission to issue a letter of reprimand.
The Idaho Public Charter School Commission started investigating financial and other concerns at Another Choice after a complaint in April of 2020. Another Choice is a state-funded, 500-student virtual charter school with some physical locations across the Treasure Valley. The commission found reason to believe Sandidge, and the Another Choice board of directors — which included Sandidge’s son-in-law Kevin McLaren — may have violated Idaho ethics laws, commission documents show. The agency forwarded its concerns to the PSC, which governs educator discipline, and the Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney.
Canyon County spokesperson Joe Decker said in April that the attorney’s office was screening two matters related to Another Choice to determine whether it would file any charges. In August, Decker announced the office had decided against criminal prosecution.
Sandidge contends that her businesses offered services and rent to Another Choice at below-market rates and that the school is working with an attorney to make changes to the contracts as necessary. Sandidge continues to serve as head of school. McLaren resigned from the board last year.
“These services are fundamentally not designed to generate profit through the school,” Sandidge told EdNews. “They are designed to support a school model that is needed for our students and is not provided elsewhere.”
At issue are contracts that Another Choice signed with at least two businesses: Advocates for inclusion, which provides special education services, and rental agreements with SMS Enterprises.
Sandidge and McLaren are both co-owners of those companies, making those contracts a conflict of interest under Idaho law.
School district employees and board members have to adhere to Idaho’s ethics in government rules. State statute specifies that a public official can’t take action where a conflict of interest exists, and if that official has a conflict of interest, they have to disclose it in writing. It is unlawful for a charter school director, or a person related to the director, to have a financial interest in any contract pertaining to the school, unless the school follows a very specific process in setting up that contract. That process requires:
- The contract is competetively bid, and the public servant submits the lowest bid. The PSC says Another Choice did not send the special education or rental agreements out to bid before giving the contracts to Sandidge and McLaren’s companies.
- Neither the public servant, nor a relative, can take part in drawing up a contract or bid, or approving the contract. The PSC says Sandidge signed the contract agreements between the school and her businesses. Documents from the charter commission show that McLaren also signed contracts on behalf of Advocates for Inclusion, though he recused himself from voting on the contracts as a school board member.
- The public servant tells the board, in writing, that they have a conflict of interest. The PSC says Sandidge did not submit a written statement describing her conflict of interest to the board. In communications to the charter commission, Sandidge said that she disclosed in her initial resume for hiring at Another Choice that she was co-owner for Advocates for Inclusion.
“For me and for the people who have been a part of ACVS there has never been a time that it was not recognized that I was part of Advocates for Inclusion,” Sandidge wrote in a letter to the charter commission. “This was always part of the public record.”
The school has paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to Sandidge and McLaren’s companies.
In just the 2019-20 school year, Another Choice paid $500,000 to Advocates for Inclusion. The school has been contracting with Advocates for Inclusion since it opened in 2010.
The school also pays $6,000 a month in lease payments to rent a building Sandidge owns in Nampa. It pays another $4,800 each month to SMS Enterprises, which is co-owned by Sandidge and McLaren, for additional space in Nampa and Boise. The school says its physical locations provide in-person learning, therapy services and computer labs for students.
Sandidge says that when the Another Choice was initially approved for a charter, the school didn’t have the “financial ability or organizational credit history” to buy a building, so it arranged rental agreements with Sandidge and her family-owned business.
Sandidge told EdNews that she has made “very little” money from the school’s contracts with her businesses, but did not quantify how much. McLaren said in an email that he had nothing to add.
Board members told the charter commission that they were aware of Sandidge and McLaren’s ownership of the rental company, even if the pair never submitted notice in writing. Board chair John Kelleher told EdNews he doesn’t consider any of the contracts with Sandidge’s companies nefarious. He called the situation “more a problem of omission instead of commission.”
“I think her heart is in the right place…she just didn’t understand she needs to be more upfront about the relationship with different entities,” Kelleher said about Sandidge. “That’s my thought. But they caught it, and she’s correcting it.”
The Charter Commission is monitoring progress at Another Choice, commission director Jenn Thompson said, and the school’s charter is up for renewal this year. The commission’s authority in this situation is limited to investigating an issue and referring any concerns to the appropriate agencies, Thompson said. By forwarding concerns to the PSC and local attorney, “we took the most severe action we could have,” she said.
The commission can consider any findings by the PSC and prosecuting attorney when it decides whether to renew the school’s charter next year.