City could force embattled charter schools to relocate

BLACKFOOT — City officials could force two embattled public charter schools out of their current facilities, igniting uncertainty over where hundreds of K-12 students will attend classes next school year.

Blackfoot’s Planning and Zoning Commission will consider Tuesday approving conditional-use permits for Bingham Academy and Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center. Blackfoot’s City Council will have the final say on planning and zoning’s recommendation.

Without the permits, the schools would have to leave three locations:

  • A series of modulars and other buildings near Highway 91 on Hunter’s Loop, where Blackfoot holds elementary classes.
  • A local shopping plaza off Parkway Drive, which Blackfoot’s middle school occupies.
  • A bygone movie theater in that same plaza, where Blackfoot holds high school classes.

Some 700 students attend the schools, which have operated in these locations for years. Commissioners say the schools’ administrators have not met timelines for transitioning out of the temporary facilities, which has jeopardized their future.

“Administratively, things just aren’t being done,” commissioner Ron Ramirez said during a recent planning and zoning meeting, according to the Blackfoot Morning News.

With the school year winding down, the prospect of not obtaining new permits presents a pressing facilities problem for Blackfoot and Bingham. The schools had planned to build a K-12 campus off Harbor Drive across from Blackfoot’s airport. The Morning News reported that those plans have halted due to what Bingham trustee Dan Cravens described as concerns over the airport’s obstacle-free zone.

During Tuesday’s commission meeting, Blackfoot principal Debbie Steele acknowledged delays in meeting transition timelines but said the schools have secured help in putting together a new transition plan.

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The commission will consider the schools’ progress on that plan Tuesday, but some commissioners say it’s too little too late. They cite concerns over parking and student safety at the plaza location.

“What is it going to take to make you realize that this is not a place for a school?” commission chair Marylin Jefferis said during Tuesday’s meeting, according to the Morning News. “You guys need to move, and you need to do it now.”

Issues between the schools and the commission aren’t new. Blackfoot Mayor Marc Carroll told Idaho Education News that he’s worked with the schools for 10 months to help them draft a project management plan.

In August, the commission expressed regret in granting previous conditional use permits to the schools, according to meeting minutes.

“The city has bent over backwards to help the schools,” Ramirez told EdNews.

Steele said the commission “would like” to force the schools out of the plaza and that the elementary school’s conditional use permit is “being used as a bargaining tool” to make that happen.

Steele sent a letter to Blackfoot parents, encouraging them to attend Tuesday’s meeting and address the commission.

“It is my hope that we will fill the room with parents that support our school and appreciate what we are doing to help your children be successful,” Steele wrote.

Blackfoot School District Superintendent Brian Kress said he’s “supremely confident” the district could absorb the influx of students if the charter school students are without a home next school year.

Idaho Science and Technology Charter School, another K-8 Blackfoot charter school, said space there is limited to 39 seats.

Tuesday’s meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in Blackfoot’s city council chambers, 157 N. Broadway.

Other troubles for the schools

The Idaho Public Charter Commission has been investigating Bingham and Blackfoot for months over allegations of questionable internal controls and financial practices.

In March, the commission hired a forensic auditing firm to probe for possible embezzlement. The commission is awaiting the final report on the forensic audit.

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