Commission finds litany of problems and rejects charter’s renewal

After giving its stamp of approval to 10 high-performing schools, the Idaho Public Charter Commission took the unprecedented step Thursday of rejecting a renewal contract for Monticello Montessori Charter on a 4-2 vote.

Although the commission has previously closed a charter school, this is the first time commissioners went against their director’s renewal recommendation. Monticello performs poorly on state tests and owes the IRS thousands of dollars.

In total, the commission voted to renew 15 charter schools at Thursday’s meeting; some were praised for their academic achievements — like Future Public School and Gem Prep Meridian — and others scrutinized for poor leadership and questionable financial decisions.

Peace Valley Charter survived, but its future appeared to hang in the balance. Academically, Peace Valley is the worst performing school among the 71 charters the commission authorizes, but commissioners expressed confidence in the Waldorf model.

The commission deadlocked on the question of renewing or rejecting Peace Valley. But after hearing school board trustee Michael Pinkerton take responsibility and admit their mistakes, commissioners who were leaning toward closing the school decided to renew.

“I think that an error that the school made in the past was to not teach towards technology,” Pinkerton told commissioners. “If they are not familiar with the format for the test … they will score quite badly.”

The school was too slow, Pinkerton said, making the change toward technology and hiring a new coordinator.

Early on, chairman Alan Reed had voiced frustration.

“We had five years of bad news … this isn’t working. I am not sure that we keep throwing effort at this, if it’s not working. There’s no determination to make it, until you’re on the spot,” Reed said.

But when the commission deadlocked 3-3, Pinkerton’s testimony swayed Reed to vote against commissioner Karen Echeverria’s motion to reject the contract. A second motion in favor of renewing the contract then passed on a 4-2 vote.

Commissioner Sherrilynn Bair favored renewal. She said Peace Valley provides choice for families and less technology for young children is a good concept. Sometimes it’s important to do what’s best for children, rather than the adults, she said.

Commissioner Nils Peterson also favored renewal. He was conflicted but opted to put his trust in the school’s new leadership team, because the Waldorf model can work.

Meanwhile, their decision to reject Monticello’s renewal contract is the first step toward permanently closing the school, a decision that will be made at a March 8 hearing. After evaluating more evidence and testimony, the commission will decide the school’s fate that day.

Monticello’s principal and business manager faced a litany of questions. Because both administrators were recently hired, they were unable to provide all the answers commissioners wanted.

Among other issues, they wanted to know why the school failed to make IRS payroll taxes, what is the newly purchased curriculum and why aren’t there school board members present.

The charter commission’s finance chairman, Brian Scigliano, had a tough time understanding why the taxes were not paid.

Monticello’s business manager, Carrie Smith, discovered the unpaid taxes last summer. Since 2014, payroll taxes were not properly paid to the IRS. And it’s estimated that the school owed $150,000 in back taxes, interest, fees and penalties.

Smith said the school has already paid over $100,000 in back taxes and interest, and they are asking the IRS to forgive some or all of the penalties and fees still owed, which could cost another $50,000.

Commissioners wanted evidence to prove those payments were actually made and received by the IRS.

Jenn Thompson, Idaho’s charter commission director, and Jacob Smith, the finance manager, discussed Smith’s statement but could not confirm it, because documentation they received from Monticello on behalf of the charter commission was created by the school, not the IRS.

“I feel very, very uncomfortable with this going forward,” Scigliano said.

Commissioners also questioned the school’s audit. And Carrie Smith confirmed that the auditor did not make note of the missing tax payments.

Without school board trustees there to provide answers at this critical juncture, Reed suggested the board is non-functioning. There was also concern that two current trustees were serving on the board when the problems started.

“What is the board doing to address the problem?” Echeverria asked.

Monticello serves 181 students in K-8, with 58% of its students listed as economically disadvantaged. The state has provided $6.5 million worth of funding over the last five years, according to the State Department of Education.

Commissioners renewed these four charter school contracts but were not unanimous in their voting. 

  • The commission voted 6-0 for Inspire Connections Academy with three conditions related to math proficiency, a financial exemption and enrollment.
  • The commission voted 4-2 (commissioners Echeverria and Scigliano voted to reject)  for Project Impact STEM Academy with two conditions related to a facility lease default and financial measures.
  • The commission voted 6-0 for Rolling Hills Public Charter School with four conditions related to financial measures and ELA proficiency goals.
  • The commission voted 6-0 for the Village Charter School with four conditions related to a facility loan default, financial measures, and both ELA and math proficiency goals.

Commissioners voted unanimously to renew the five-year contracts for these 10 charter schools.

  • Falcon Ridge Public Charter School
  • Future Public School
  • Gem Prep: Meridian
  • Heritage Community Charter School
  • Idaho Science and Technology Charter School
  • Legacy Public Charter School
  • North Idaho STEM Charter Academy
  • North Star Charter School
  • North Valley Academy
  • Palouse Prairie Charter School
Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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