‘There’s a lot to celebrate:’ State Board focuses on an embattled program’s future

Acknowledging setbacks — but emphasizing safeguards and successes — State Board of Education officials tried to put the best possible face on Idaho’s embattled Empowering Parents microgrant program.

And they pointed toward the future: another round of education grants, which will be available sometime this fall.

Jenn Thompson

“We think we have come to a really good place with the administration of the program,” Jenn Thompson, the State Board’s chief planning and policy officer, said during a board meeting in Boise Wednesday.

A year ago, Idaho launched the $50 million Empowering Parents program, allowing families to apply for microgrants to cover out-of-pocket education costs, such as laptops and learning materials. The rollout has been uneven at best.

According to a State Board internal review, released in July, the federally funded grant program covered some $180,000 in improper purchases — for items such as TVs, smart watches and cameras. And Odyssey, the state’s Empowering Parents contractor, kept some $550,000 in interest earned off the federal funding, in violation of its $1.5 million state contract.

Thompson urged board members to put the problems in perspective.

State Board staff reviewed about 45,000 purchases, and found only 500 ineligible purchases, she said. Odyssey has agreed to cover the $180,000 for these purchases.

Odyssey has also agreed to pay back the interest it collected — although the New York-based company will keep money to cover the taxes it owes from the earnings. Ultimately, the state could receive about a $400,000 repayment, according to a State Board memo.

Thompson pointed to several safeguards designed to prevent future problems:

  • Odyssey now approves all purchases beforehand.
  • State Board staff reviews every purchase Odyssey approves.
  • The State Board and Odyssey will approve all new vendors. As problems with the program mounted this spring, several vendors were dropped from the Empowering Parents online marketplace.

The State Board is continuing to look into previous Empowering Parents purchases — and about 10% of the transactions remain under review. And Gov. Brad Little has ordered a third-party Empowering Parents audit. This could be completed by June, according to a State Board memo.

By then, Empowering Parents will launch into its next phase. Families can apply this fall for the next round of grants, covered by $30 million of state money.

Kurt Liebich

And in October, the State Board will receive recommendations from a parents’ panel, which has been spending the summer studying the program. The panel could decide whether to expand the program — and cover out-of-pocket costs for classes, camps or athletic uniforms. The panel is also looking at ways to beef up the online marketplace to give families additional buying options, said state superintendent Debbie Critchfield, the panel’s nonvoting chair.

Last week, parental panel members pressed an Odyssey official for answers about the program’s problems, and received few answers. Wednesday’s State Board meeting took a different tone — as members and staff chalked up problems to the challenges of a complicated launch.

“You’re not going to get it 100% right,” board member Kurt Liebich said. “I think there’s a lot to celebrate.”

Other State Board business Wednesday 

Diversity statements. The State Board gave its initial approval to a policy that would ban “diversity statements” on college campuses.

“Hiring decisions … shall not be conditioned on a requirement that applicants submit a written diversity statement,” the proposed policy reads, in part.

The State Board asked staff to draft this policy in April.

The policy will come up for a final board vote in October.

Boise State housing. The State Board approved two related items that could address Boise State University’s student housing shortage.

Boise State got the go-ahead to work with the City of Boise on a development plan for the Lusk district, west of campus. This is already a hotbed for student apartments. But by 2024, the university hopes to open 270 leased housing units. A 450-bed residential complex is expected to come online the following year.

Meanwhile, Boise State will sell its Park Apartments site to the city — an $8.1 million deal that is a linchpin for the Lusk mixed-use plan. The city will lease back these 47 housing units to the university through June.

Home Depot lease. The board unanimously approved a plan to lease 12 acres of University of Idaho land to Home Depot.

The U of I has owned the land since 1926, and uses it as pasture and cropland. But the land sits near Moscow’s Palouse Mall, and Home Depot wants to build a 136,000-square-foot store on the property.

The U of I will receive $89,250 a year during the first five years of the lease. Annual payments will gradually increase, exceeding $135,700 after 15 years. The 20-year lease also includes 40 years of optional renewals.

The State Board received upwards of 150 written comments opposing the lease, President Linda Clark said at the outset of the discussion. U of I President C. Scott Green said a local retailer, Moscow Pullman Building Supply, was leading the opposition. Green told the board he shops at the store — but also said it’s not the U of I’s place to close off the marketplace.

Liebich said Home Depot will expand in the Palouse, with or without U of I’s lease. “If they want to be in this market, they’ll find another place to be in this market.”

A U of I settlement. With no public discussion, the board approved a settlement with a U of I employee.

Details remain confidential, but State Board policy requires the board to approve any settlement exceeding $200,000.

The settlement stemmed from court-ordered — and confidential — mediation, U of I general counsel Kent Nelson told board members.

The board discussed the settlement in closed executive session before approving it Wednesday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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