Commission to weigh effectiveness of 17 charter schools

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission will weigh the costs and benefits of renewing a record number of charter school contracts affecting nearly 8,000 students and hundreds of employees on Thursday. 

Seventeen public charter schools — the most for the next three years — will seek approval to continue operating for another five years. The seven-member commission is responsible for ensuring that the 71 schools it authorizes with taxpayer dollars are compliant with financial requirements and reaching academic benchmarks.

Appointed by state leaders, commission members rely on recommendations from Jenn Thompson, Idaho’s charter commission director. She has recommended renewing all the contracts, but for some schools she has recommended multiple conditions be met.

Ten schools were fully compliant with their contractual benchmarks, six reported various academic or financial failings, and one — Idaho Virtual Academy — rejected two of Thompson’s recommendations.

The commission considers renewals on a rotating schedule and uses nine performance measures to determine the stability and health of schools. The commission has closed one school since 2014.

The meeting is Thursday, Feb. 23 ,at 9 a.m. at Joe R. Williams Building, 700 W. State Street, Boise, in the West Conference Room on the first floor. (Check back with EdNews for a report from the meeting). 

Monticello and Peace Valley charters did not achieve academic benchmarks in any of the previous five years, and IDVA has asked the commission for a special hearing to rule on its case.

Monticello Montessori Charter School

The concerns at Ammon-based Monticello charter are numerous and recurring: The school failed to make payroll taxes for multiple years; its financial operations are losing money; and it did not achieve either English language arts or math proficiency in any of the previous five years.

The state has provided $6.5 million worth of funding in those five years, according to the State Department of Education. At 33% proficiency in math, Monticello is eight points behind Bonneville — the district used for academic comparison — and nine points behind in ELA, with a 44% proficiency rating.

According to a state report, Monticello was the subject of an investigation in the spring of 2021 which led to board and leadership turnover. An audit also revealed that payroll taxes were not paid in multiple years, and it’s unknown how much the IRS will ask for in back taxes and penalties.

The school serves 181 students in K-8, with 58% of its students listed as economically disadvantaged.

Thompson’s recommendation comes with seven conditions that require the school to correct the problems within a specific time frame.

Peace Valley Charter School 

In its first five years of operation, Peace Valley’s academic and operational deficiencies are numerous, according to a state report. But there are no financial concerns.

The Waldorf school in Boise serves 320 students in K-8. In its first four years of operation, the state provided $6.1 million in funding, according to the SDE.

The following list provided by the state details some issues reported as concerns in Thompson’s report.

  • High school board turnover: 40 board members served in four years.
  • The Idaho School Board Association will not work with this board.
  • It has struggled to maintain a safe school environment.
  • It has not met any academic performance measure.
  • It has the lowest literacy proficiency rates.
  • It has the largest loss of reading proficiency of any charter.

The “safe school environment” concern involves two incidents where a student assaulted another student and there was lack of sufficient supervision, according to the report. The state is also concerned that students who qualify for special education services are not receiving sufficient services.

Thompson recommends renewal with seven conditions to correct their shortcomings.

School principal Andrew Ross said, “I believe that these are conditions that we can continue to work with.” 

Ross said there is a passion for the Waldorf education model, which blends traditional academics with practical skills, the arts, movement and nature.  Because Peace Valley de-emphasizes technology, computer-based state assessments may not provide an accurate measure of student knowledge, he said.

“That does sometimes create challenges for us in relation to what we believe our students know, and how that translates into those state assessments,” Ross said, so the school will focus on improving computer literacy.

“So we have work in front of us,” Ross said.

Idaho Virtual Academy

Because IDVA rejected two of Thompson’s three renewal conditions, the school’s case will be heard at a special commission hearing Feb. 24. 

At issue is a proposed increase in the “alternative schools graduates” rate and the removal of a financial accountability exemption. On the third condition, IDVA agreed that enrollment should not exceed 5,500 students.

The “alternative schools graduates” measure is not a graduation rate; rather, it measures how effective alternative schools are at helping at-risk students graduate. 

“It’s a ‘did you help them while you had them’ approach to graduation,” said Thompson.

The financial exemption at issue is more complicated. IDVA is fully compliant with the state’s financial requirements, according to Kelly Edginton, the school’s executive director, who along with the school’s finance manager and board treasurer responded to EdNews’ questions.

The issue appears to be the disconnect between IDVA’s third-party vendor, Stride, and the financial information needed for the commission’s scoring rubric.

The structure of IDVA’s financial reports and statements do not align with the commission’s metrics, said finance manager Felicia Boyle, which is why the exemption was granted 10 years ago.

“It’s like trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” Boyle said.

IDVA’s financial reports and operations are open and transparent, said treasurer Irene Shaver.

To read more about the school’s teacher contracts, annual budgets, school expenditures like payroll and financial statements, and board minutes and agendas visit the school’s website.

Thompson said, “Three schools have historically been exempted from accountability to the Public Charter School Commission’s financial measures:  IDVA, ITCA, and Inspire.  Fiscal year 2022 was the last year this exemption was in effect for ITCA.  I have proposed that fiscal year 2023 be the last year this exemption be in effect for Inspire and IDVA.” 

IDVA has been in operation for 20 years. It serves 1,731 students in K-12. The school also operates an online alternative school, Insight, that serves 296 students in 9-12. The schools employ 118 full-time and three part-time staff members. Over the last five years, according to the SDE, the state provided $17.6 million worth of funding.

The last four charters up for renewal with conditions

  • Inspire Connections Academy: three conditions related to math proficiency, a financial exemption and enrollment.
  • Project Impact STEM Academy: two conditions related to a facility lease default and financial measures.
  • Rolling Hills Public Charter School: four conditions related to financial measures and ELA proficiency goals.
  • The Village Charter School: four conditions related to a facility loan default, financial measures, and both ELA and math proficiency goals.

The 10 charters recommended for contract renewal without conditions

  • Falcon Ridge Public Charter School
  • Future Public School
  • Gem Prep: Meridian
  • Heritage Community Charter School
  • Idaho Science and Technology Charter School
  • Legacy Public Charter School
  • North Idaho STEM Charter Academy
  • North Star Charter School
  • North Valley Academy
  • Palouse Prairie Charter School

The charter commission publishes reports for each school it authorizes. To read more about the 17 schools up for renewal this week or any of its schools click on this link.

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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