Embattled Blackfoot charter schools revamp leadership

BLACKFOOT — Two embattled Blackfoot charter schools have revamped their leadership structure following a range of improvement sanctions handed down by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission.

Starting next year, Bingham Academy and Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center will no longer share a director or “head administrator.” The schools will instead operate under separate leadership, according to emails between the schools’ board chairs and the commission.

  • Bingham principal Mark Fisk is now the school’s “chief administrator.”
  • Blackfoot elementary principal Debbie Steele is chief administrator of her school.
  • Second-year Blackfoot middle school teacher Craig Gerard will work under Steele’s direction to next year take over as Blackfoot’s middle school principal, which operates at a separate location from the elementary school.

Fred Ball is still functioning in his role as both Blackfoot’s middle school principal and director of both schools in order to “help train and guide the incoming leadership,” Blackfoot trustee Dan Cravens told Idaho Eduction News.

Fred Ball

Ball plans to retire at the end of this school year.

Both schools are under investigation by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission for potential “misuse or misappropriation of assets and cash.” The schools each receive state funding based on average daily attendance. Together, they serve about 750 students, with budgets totaling some $4.3 million.

Amid its investigation into the schools’ finances, the commission outlined a range of improvements required for Blackfoot to have its charter renewed. This included an April 1 deadline for separation of operations and finances between the schools.

As part of its investigation, the commission is paying an auditing firm $200 an hour to probe for possible embezzlement of public funds.

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Eide Bailly LLP, the auditing firm handling the audit, is contracted to update the commission every two weeks on its progress. Idaho EdNews has requested but not yet received from the commission the auditing firm’s initial update on the forensic audit.

Gerard’s appointment as principal

Gerard’s appointment as Blackfoot’s middle school principal is made possible through a one-year alternative authorization program that allows Idaho schools to hire an administrator who is not certified but is in the process of gaining certification.

Blackfoot declared an “area of need” for the middle school principal position in order to seek a one-year alternative authorization from the state for Gerard, who told trustees that he will graduate next May with a master’s degree in education administration.

Gerard’s promotion also coincides with a new law that relaxes hiring requirements for charter school administrators. Typically, a principal must hold a master’s degree. But Senate Bill 1058 allows Idaho’s charter schools to permanently bypass the normal hiring requirements for school administrators. The law goes into effect July 1, Gerard’s start date as principal.

Gov. Brad Little signed HB 1058 into law in March, but expressed some reservations. Critics said the bill would put non-educators in charge of overseeing academics and evaluating teachers. The State Board of Education, the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho Education Association opposed the bill.

“I have listened closely to those concerned about the consequences of this bill and I will be closely watching its impacts,” Little said in a formal letter outlining his decision.

Despite declaring an area of need for the middle school principal position, Blackfoot trustees interviewed four “wonderful” candidates, according to the school’s board minutes. Trustees said Gerard’s experience with the school’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering, art and math ultimately won out.

Gerard told trustees that he has “always held leadership or managerial roles.”

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