City commission orders embattled charter school to stop using facility

BLACKFOOT — With the new school year approaching, Blackfoot’s planning and zoning commission is ordering Bingham Academy to stop using its existing facility.

“The facility has no valid (conditional use permit) and is out of compliance with the city land use code,” Blackfoot city planner Kurt Hibbert wrote to the embattled charter school, at the behest of the planning and zoning commission. “Use of the facility as a school must cease immediately.”

The July 17 letter marks the latest chapter in an ongoing battle over facilities between the commission and the school, which typically serves around 100 students and operates in a bygone local movie theater.

City officials say Bingham administrators have failed to produce both the paperwork needed to obtain a permit and a detailed plan for transitioning out of the former theater housed in a local strip mall.

Bingham’s attorney, Nathan Olsen, is pushing back — and setting the stage for what appears to be a looming legal battle.

“We will be submitting a notice of appeal of the (commission’s) finding of ‘non-conformance’ to the city council, as well as a notice of tort claim likely sometime tomorrow,” Olsen told EdNews.

Blackfoot’s City Council will have the final say on the commission’s request that Blackfoot stop using the facility.

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Olsen has criticized the city’s permit requirements and procedures, and pointed to other schools within city limits that aren’t required to submit applications.

“We do not feel that we should have to provide something that the other schools in this area are not required to do,” Olsen recently told the Bingham County Chronicle.

Hibbert called Olsen’s claim about requirements for other schools “smoke and mirrors.” Some Blackfoot schools don’t have to submit the same paperwork, Hibbert acknowledged, but only because they predate the city’s ordinance requiring it.

Hibbert pointed to another local charter school, Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center, which recently followed the city’s application requirements for a conditional use permit.

Issues between the schools and the city aren’t new. Blackfoot Mayor Marc Carroll last month told EdNews that he worked with both Bingham and Blackfoot for nearly a year to help them meet paperwork requirements. In August, the commission expressed regret in granting previous conditional use permits to both schools, according to meeting minutes.

Blackfoot School District Superintendent Brian Kress has said he’s “supremely confident” the district could absorb the influx of students if Bingham students are without a home next school year. This could require the use of additional modular classrooms, Kress added.

Olsen said Bingham will release a statement in response to the letter sometime Tuesday.

Bingham’s first scheduled day of class is Aug. 19.

Other troubles for the schools

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission investigated both 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. A final report of the $20,000 audit prompted charter commission chairman Alan Reed to issue a letter to Bingham County Prosectutor Paul Rogers, outlining concerns that former Bingham and Blackfoot administrator Fred Ball might have violated Idaho’s bribery and corrupt influence laws and other state codes.

Rogers recently told EdNews that he asked multiple agencies to investigate Ball, who retired in June.

Reed’s concerns over past transactions revolve around the purchase of modular classrooms at the schools. EdNews first began writing about these transactions in January.

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