City grants permit to Blackfoot charter school

BLACKFOOT — An embattled Blackfoot charter school can continue operating in a former movie theater, a city commission says, as long as the school’s enrollment does not outgrow the facility.

Blackfoot’s Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved Bingham Academy’s application for a conditional-use permit for the facility during a nearly four-hour public hearing Tuesday night.

Commissioners granted the permit on the basis that Bingham provide some details for eventually transitioning out of the former theater housed in a local strip mall.

Yet the school won’t need to produce a firm transition plan until its enrollment reaches 160 kids, commissioners said. Even then, Bingham, which typically enrolls around 100 students, would have 3-5 years to transition out of the facility.

Bingham’s enrollment has remained steady for the last three years.

Tuesday’s decision follows a year-long battle between the city and school over use of the facility. Bingham and its supporters have questioned the city’s authority and process for imposing a permit requirement on the school. The school reluctantly applied for a conditional-use permit with the city in August.

In September, Blackfoot City Planner Kurt Hibbert detailed a range of safety concerns tied to Bingham’s place in a shopping plaza, as well as the school’s impacts on adjoining businesses.

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Hibbert listed his concerns in a five-page staff report to the commission, along with a recommendation that the school draft plans to transition out of the facility and mitigate traffic and pedestrian safety concerns.

Hibbert’s concerns ranged from creation of a hallway passage that “breached” a joint between structural walls to unescorted students coming and going from the school, at times becoming “stranded” between traffic lanes on a boulevard dividing the city.

The school called Hibbert’s concerns “false and inflammatory.”

The debate carried over to Tuesday’s meeting, with commissioners twice deadlocked on 2-2 votes. Commissioners Ron Ramirez and Merv Dolan originally opposed granting the permit and commissioners Loren Sayer and Rocky Moldenhauer supported it.

Eventual approval came after a discussion in which the school listed enrollment as a key reason for fighting the city’s past requests for a robust transition plan.

At just over 100 students, there’s no need for such a plan, said Bingham Administrator Mark Fisk.

Following discussion between attorneys for the school and city, commissioners voted 4-0 to grant the permit.

Commissioners Marilyn Jefferis, JoAnne Thomas and Deborah Barlow recused themselves from the discussion and vote.

Dozens of Bingham parents and supporters attended the meeting, with several voicing support for the school.

Bingham celebrated the decision early Wednesday morning.

“CUP granted!” the school wrote on Facebook just after midnight, thanking students, parents and local supporters.

Ramirez, who was the most vocal in requiring the school to produce a transition plan, told Idaho Education News the issue was a conundrum for the commission.

While the school has done some “very good things,” Ramirez said, Hibbert’s safety concerns are a “real problem.”

“It’s was a hard call,” Ramirez said.

Further reading: Authorities are still investigating possible violations of Idaho’s bribery and corrupt influence laws by Bingham’s former director, Fred Ball. 

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