Is Bingham Academy following commission-recommended improvement opportunites?

BLACKFOOT — Bingham Academy recently reimbursed its retired head administrator without updating his contract, about six months after the Idaho Public Charter School Commission called for greater transparency in school administrative practices.

In a February letter, charter commission director Tamara Baysinger listed “opportunities for improvement” for Bingham. Baysinger said the school should reduce the practice of administrative reimbursements and align employee responsibilities with contracted job descriptions.

An August expense report obtained by Idaho Education News shows that former head administrator Fred Ball, who retired in June, received a $3,625 reimbursement for his time as the school’s drivers education instructor from August 2018 through May 2019. Baysinger said in February that Ball should not teach drivers education unless it was included in his school contract.

Bingham leaders last week confirmed that Ball’s contract was not updated to reflect his drivers education instructor’s job.

Ball is under investigation for potential violation of Idaho’s bribery and corrupt influence laws during his time as head administrator.

Meanwhile, finances and board agendas are not being posted to Bingham’s website, as state law requires, and the school is submerged in a months-long facilities feud with the city of Blackfoot that could jeopardize future use of its location in a former movie theater.

‘The director should not be teaching drivers education…’

Ball’s reimbursement follows Baysinger’s Feb. 12 letter, written amid the commission’s prior investigation into the school’s finances.

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“Any reimbursements that are made must be pre-approved through the purchase order system and documented by itemized receipts,” Baysinger wrote to the school.

Baysinger encouraged leaders to ensure that employees are performing work “within the scope of their job descriptions.” “For example, the director should not be teaching drivers education unless his job description and contract specifically include this duty,” she wrote.

Bingham’s current head administrator, Mark Fisk, told EdNews Friday that Ball’s latest contract with the school was not updated to reflect his job as a drivers education instructor.

The school’s business manager, Steve Bailey, said that the school did not focus on updating Ball’s contract in part because of Ball’s planned retirement. Bailey, who joined the school last year, pointed to two reasons for not including the drivers education teacher’s job in Ball’s contract:

  1. “You would never put a job description in a contract,” Bailey said.
  2. Ball performed the driving instructor job as an individual contractor for the school.

“He was a subcontractor, like any subcontractor,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the school updated job descriptions to the commission’s satisfaction, and the commission “signed off” on its efforts last school year.

Transparency issues at Bingham

Bingham’s website appears to show that the school has not been posting expense reports or board meeting agendas in accordance with Idaho law.

On Sept. 9, the school posted a notice that trustees had canceled their July school board meeting. The board also on Sept. 9 posted notice for its August meeting. Idaho law requires board meeting agendas to be posted online 48 hours before regular meetings and 24 hours before special meetings.

Fisk said the posting dates on the school’s website should not “be taken as authoritative or definitive” because the school temporarily takes down and reposts document links for a variety of reformatting and administrative purposes.

Fisk said the school made “physical” postings of both the canceled July meeting and August meeting within legal timelines, but acknowledged that notices weren’t posted to the website until Sept. 9.

Meanwhile, Bingham’s website shows that five months worth of expense reports were uploaded simultaneously to the site on Aug. 13. State statute requires expenses to be updated monthly.

Bailey said he remembers all but June’s expense report being posted to the site in a timely fashion.

“I don’t feel at any point since March that they have been more than 30 to 45 days out except June, which was not formally approved until the August meeting,” Bailey said.

EdNews notified Fisk in July that the school’s website financials had not been updated since May. Bailey said the school added the June statement afterward.

Bingham does not post employee contracts to its website, as required by Idaho law.

Bingham takes a step toward settling facilities feud

Bingham recently applied for a permit to the city of Blackfoot to allow the school to continue operating in a former theater in a strip mall.

The school’s attorney, Nathan Olsen, lambasted the city’s application requirement in a five-page letter.

“(The school) still firmly holds that the position that a (conditional use permit) is unnecessary for its current use of the property,”  Olsen wrote.

He also wrote that the school’s application is a “good faith gesture to resolve this manufactured crisis.”

Blackfoot City Planner Kurt Hibbert called Olsen’s letter “defiant” and “offensive.”

Blackfoot’s Planning and Zoning Commission previously ordered Bingham to discontinue using the facility because of noncompliance. The city then granted the school a 30-day grace period to submit an application. Friday’s submission came on the last day of the 30-day grace period.

The commission will likely make a decision and establish conditions for the permit on Oct. 22. The school could appeal the commission’s decision with the City Council.

The school’s August expense report shows that it has paid Olsen’s Idaho Falls-based law firm $10,818 in legal fees related to the dustup.

Blackfoot’s past problems

Ball’s recent reimbursement follows a series of unexplained reimbursements, which prompted the Idaho charter commission to conduct a months-long investigation into the school’s finances — and eventually notify authorities of its findings.

In May, commission chairman Alan Reed wrote a letter to Bingham County Prosecutor Paul Rogers. Reed said he thought Ball might have violated Idaho’s bribery and corrupt influence laws and other state codes. Reed’s letter followed a $20,000 forensic audit, requested by the commission, focusing on transactions involving modular classrooms at the schools. Idaho Education News first wrote about these transactions in January:

  • Ball received a $16,000 reimbursement from Blackfoot in 2017. In December 2018, Ball told EdNews that he personally purchased two modulars from Salt Lake Community College, and resold them for the “spectacularly low price” of $16,000 or “what he had into them.” Documentation for the $16,000 transaction was “incomplete,” Reed wrote in his letter to Rogers.
  • Salt Lake Community College officials told EdNews that the college has no record of a purchase with Ball. Instead, documents show that the college sold at least one modular directly to Bingham Academy in December 2013, for $2,000.
  • Bingham Academy wrote a $12,000 check to “Somewhere in the Middle,” a former band of which Ball’s son was a member. The forensic audit of both schools revealed that Bingham paid the band to transport modulars sometime in 2014. “The school has not been able to produce documentation supporting this transaction,” Reed wrote.

Rogers told EdNews in July that he asked several agencies to investigate the matter. On Aug. 23, Rogers said he had not yet received an update on the investigation.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

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