‘It’s serious’: Emails reveal details leading up to closure of two charter schools

ARTEC/ARTEI students work on computers.

Two Idaho charter schools were investigated for nearly a year by education leaders before they closed amid discoveries they over-collected millions of taxpayer dollars, according to hundreds of emails obtained by Idaho EdNews.

One state education official called the situation at ARTEC and ARTEI Regional Professional Technical charter schools “serious,” as revelations of inaccurate state reports and a range of other issues unfolded at the Magic Valley charters.

The emails, obtained through public records requests to the State Board of Education and State Department of Education, also outline pushback from the schools’ leaders over claims that their enrollments were a fraction of what they reported to the state. This lead to the schools getting millions of tax dollars they didn’t deserve, according to state funding practices.

The emails obtained by EdNews also capture the principal downplaying claims that the schools enrolled far fewer students than had been reported, and its board chair telling top state leaders that teachers cried over the closures.

In interviews last month, current and past ARTEC and ARTEI board members have denied seeing any nefarious activity from leaders at the schools.

“During my service I did not witness purposeful mismanagement by the administration,” said Idaho Falls School District Superintendent James Shank, who served on the board as Cassia County’s superintendent for nearly three years before leaving for Idaho Falls this school year.

The schools’ latest enrollment tallies sent to the state show that they serve no students, though SDE spokeswoman Kris Rodine recently told EdNews that the schools don’t plan to formally close until next month.

Inaccurate reports

Last year’s switch from an attendance- to an enrollment-based funding model fleshed out a series of reporting inaccuracies that resulted in financial windfalls to the charter schools, state education leaders told EdNews last month.

In an attempt to recoup some of the money, which state education officials have put from $2.2 million to $6 million, leaders cut off subsequent operational payments to the schools earlier this year — a move that local leaders said placed a heavy strain on the schools and contributed to last month’s announcement that they would shut down for good.

It’s still unclear if the state will get back the millions of dollars lost to the schools, and the charters’ authorizer, the Minidoka School District, isn’t liable.

‘It’s serious’

Late last year, then-State Board member Debbie Critchfield outlined the weight of issues at the schools to local leaders.

“I do not want to downplay what’s happening in the Magic Valley,” Critchfield wrote on Nov. 10 to executive director Andy Wiseman, principal Gaylen Smyer and board chair Michael Arrington. “It’s serious.”

Months later, the State Department of Education’s finance chief detailed the legal ramifications to the schools.

“We have learned through recent conversations with the charter schools that neither had enrolled students as required by Idaho Code and State Board rule,” State Department of Education Chief Financial Officer Julie Oberle wrote to Smyer in August.

These and other communications to the schools culminated with State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman’s August letter, which, on top of the schools’ attendance and enrollment issues, outlined their lack of documented state approval for CTE courses and having people listed as staff members who were not employed at the schools. The letter includes a series of corrective measures for the schools.

Emails reviewed by EdNews cast further light on some specifics outlined in Freeman’s letter.

In a Sept. 19 email to State Board members and staff, Freeman put the number of students attending the schools at “six or less” — hundreds below the roughly 800 students the schools previously reported to the state. The schools also had “no instructors,” Freeman wrote.

Wiseman pushed back at claims against the schools.

“Sudents were in ARTEC and ARTEI programs last year, teachers taught courses, students earned grades and industry certifications,” Wiseman wrote in an Aug. 22 letter to the schools’ board members. “For the (State Board and SDE) to say we had no students last year just is not true.”

Wiseman produced a range of documents apparently aimed at justifying the schools’ reporting practices and legitimacy — from news clippings of past state events they participated in to communications with former SDE finance chief Tim Hill that outline reporting procedures for the schools. Wiseman augmented these and other documents with an appeal to the schools’ board members in July to claim “injury” against the state as a result of rescinded payments to the schools.

Other emails highlighted the responses and emotions of students and teachers who learned of the schools’ plan to close.

“We have had other teachers break down and cry,” Arrington wrote in a Sept. 14 email that included Critchfield, Idaho House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow and House Speaker Scott Bedke.

In his Sept. 19 email to State Board members and staff, Freeman distanced the state from the schools’ decision to close.

“To be clear, we did not order the school closed,” he wrote. “That was a decision made by the school’s board.”

‘Creative thinking’

EdNews reached out to current and past members of the schools’ governing board, which is made up in-part of area K-12 superintendents, regarding reporting inaccuracies at the schools and what may have caused them.

Both downplayed notions of any nefarious activity from local leaders.

“To my knowledge, no formal financial audit had revealed a finding. No formal program audit had determined that there were issues,” said Shank, who believes the schools’ administration was “working from past precedence and knowledge” of state reporting requirement.

Jerome Superintendent Pat Charlton agreed.

A lot of “creative thinking” went into the effort to keep ARTEC functioning for all of these years, said Charlton, who began his time on the charter schools’ board early this year. But it was “all done legally with support from the Legislature, the State Division of CTE, and the Idaho SDE,” he added. “I see no indication of wrongdoing on the part of anyone who was involved in this ‘creative thinking,'”

It’s still unclear to the SDE how much money or assets the schools will have upon closure, Rodine said Wednesday.

Typically, items purchased with federal funds are returned to a school’s authorizer — in this case, the Minidoka district — and distributed to other charter schools or schools with programs that qualify for the same federal funds, Rodine added. “If there are assets purchased with state funds, the school’s board would decide what happens to them.”

More reading: Click here for details on ties between Critchfield, who’s running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Arrington. 

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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