Former board chair benefitted financially from his school, says state charter commission director

The former board chair of an Idaho public charter school broke state law by benefiting financially from an arrangement between a company he co-owns and the school, Idaho’s charter commission director says.

The violation involving the school’s former board chair, Kevin McLaren, is one of several reasons why Another Choice Virtual Charter School should cease operations, Idaho Public Charter School Commission Director Jenn Thompson recommended in a Nov. 15 report obtained by Idaho EdNews through a public records request.

Thompson’s report includes a recommendation that the commission, a 7-member body that oversees around 75% of Idaho’s 75 public charter schools, not renew the school’s charter because of a range of academic and operational issues, including $500,000 in payments to McLaren’s company in 2019 alone.

The commission believes McLaren and Another Choice’s head administrator Laura Sandidge violated Idaho ethics laws by benefiting from a contract between the school and the company, Advocates for Inclusion. A state ethics commission disciplined Sandidge in April for authorizing the payments.

As director, Thompson makes recommendations to the commission regarding charter schools that are up for state renewal every five years. The commission decides any action to be taken against its schools. Thompson also recently recommended closure of two online programs at another charter and renewal of charters for nine others. Details on those recommendations are below.

Another Choice serves about 500 students and has physical locations across the Treasure Valley. It annually spends about $4 million in taxpayer dollars.

Issues at Another Choice

Thompson outlined a range of reasons for recommending non-renewal of Another Choice’s charter:

  • While serving as Another Choice’s board chair, McLaren’s company took in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the school. The board knew McLaren co-owned the company yet still approved the contract without a competitive bid process, which is against state law. The board waited months after the commission flagged the issue to acknowledge it.
  • The board failed to oversee matters related to the school and Sandidge, who received a letter of reprimand by the Idaho Professional Standards Commission in April following what commissioners said were violations of state statute and the State Board of Education’s code of ethics. Authorities investigated, but the local prosecutor did not pursue criminal charges. Sandidge remains the school’s head administrator, according to its website. McLaren resigned after the commission’s investigation.
  • The board hasn’t notified the commission that Sandidge ever completed an ethics course as part of her discipline from the standards commission.
  • The school’s enrollment dropped by 12%, and it spent more than it received from the state in 2021.
  • The school made “numerous” errors in reporting teacher certifications to the state, which led to inaccurate payments from the state.

    Laura Sandidge, second from left, pictured with her family and co-owners of Advocates for Inclusion, on the AFI site.
  • The board failed “on multiple occasions” to post public meeting notices. Agendas and other operations documents never showed up on its website, as required by Idaho law.
  • Students performed poorly on standardized tests, with scores dipping as low as 17% proficiency in math and 33% proficiency in English language arts. The school failed to meet eight of nine academic measures put in place by the commission.

The school’s leaders have until Dec. 15 to either accept the recommendation by agreeing to have the charter revoked or requesting a hearing to contest it before the commission.

The school’s current board chair, John Kelleher, did not respond to questions about Thompson’s letter.

Idaho’s online schools, which often serve a variety of unique and at-risk students, typically perform below students in the state’s brick-and-mortar schools on a range of academic indicators.

Recommended closure of other online programs

Thompson also recommended that Mountain Home-based Richard McKenna Charter School close its virtual and alternative-virtual high school programs by June 30, 2022 because of dismal academic performance. Students in both programs have “rarely met standards on any academic performance measure” used by the commission, Thompson wrote in a Nov. 12 letter to the school.

The school’s in-person K-12 program may continue operating, Thompson suggested, if it can improve its standardized test scores and graduation rate by June of 2023.

The school has until Dec. 15 to either accept the recommendation or request a hearing before the commission.

Click here for the school’s recommendation report.

Other renewal recommendations

Thompson has recommended renewal for nine charter schools, including:

  • American Heritage Charter School
  • Bingham Academy
  • Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy
  • Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy
  • Heritage Academy
  • Idaho Connects Online Charter
  • Idaho College and Career Technical Academy
  • Kootenai Bridge Academy
  • Syringa Mountain School
  • iSucceed Virtual Charter School
Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

Devin was formerly a senior reporter and editor for Idaho Education News and now works for INL in communications.

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