Charter School Commission’s controversial meeting appears to violate state law, AG says

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Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri

Originally posted on on July 25, 2019.

The Public Charter School Commission appeared to violate Idaho’s open meeting law during a closed-door meeting in April, the attorney general’s office said Thursday.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office stopped short of saying definitively that the commission broke state law. But in a 13-page report and in a two-page letter to commission Chairman Alan Reed, Wasden’s office said it had “probable cause” to pursue an open meeting complaint, on several counts. Among the possible violations: The commission appeared to discuss topics that should have been addressed in a public meeting, and not a closed executive session.

Idaho Education News received the report and letter Thursday, through a public records request. Minutes after these documents went public, the commission admitted to the violations.

“Reed agrees with the attorney general’s conclusion that mistakes were made,” said Mike Keckler, a spokesman for the State Board of Education, which oversees the commission. “The commission is working to schedule a special meeting as soon as possible to formally consider the A.G.’s recommendations. That meeting will be properly noticed and open to the public.”

The admission seemed to address at least one recommendation from Wasden’s office. In order to rectify the situation, Wasden’s office said the commission should publicly acknowledge the violations, set aside any actions resulting from the illegal meeting and schedule a training session within 60 days.

The attorney general’s office says it could pursue a civil complaint, if the commission fails to act on the recommendations.

For now, Thursday’s findings represent yet another public rebuke of the commission — a panel of state appointees that oversees nearly three-fourths of Idaho’s charter schools.

The meeting, in a nutshell

On April 11, the charter commission held an executive session, a closed-door meeting. The details became public in June, when the charter commission inadvertently released a recording of the meeting.

During the two-hour meeting, charter commissioners were sharply critical of several charter schools and their leaders. They lamented lax financial management and low student performance at several charter schools. They singled out test scores at Heritage Academy — a Jerome charter school with high student poverty rates and a large Hispanic population. At one point, Reed expressed regret that Heritage remained open. At another point in the meeting, someone suggested Heritage administrator Christine Ivie applauded the low test scores, since her school would qualify for increased funding.

“Christine should run a social service agency, not a school,” one commissioner said.

The legal questions

State law allows public agencies to deliberate in a closed-door “executive session” for any one of several reasons. For instance, agencies can go behind closed doors to discuss documents and data that would otherwise be exempt from public release.

The commission has maintained it went behind closed doors, under direction from Wasden’s office, in order to review confidential student data sets. But the commission did discuss aggregate student test scores for Heritage, scores that are available on the State Department of Education’s website.

Charter advocates blasted the commission for discussing the idea of closing schools in a closed meeting. “The commission spent a great deal of time discussing in executive session how they could convince the legislature and governor’s office why it is necessary to close some charter schools in Idaho. This is a discussion that needed to be had in an open meeting, not behind a closed door,” the Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center said in a statement in June.

Ultimately, Wasden received four complaints about the April 11 meeting — including one from Heritage and a second from Heritage’s attorney. At that point, Wasden was obligated to investigate.

Even before Wasden weighed in, Gov. Brad Little said the commission probably violated the open meeting law over the course of the two-hour discussion.

“Long executive sessions are the devil’s playground,” Little told Idaho Education News last week.

A growing rift

The April meeting has driven a wedge between the commission and some charter school advocates.

Reed later apologized for the release of the audio. But some charter advocates  questioned the legality of the meeting, and expressed outrage at the commission’s remarks about students and charter leaders.

“We are experiencing an obvious anti-charter bias inside the very commission that is supposed to support and approve charter schools in Idaho,” said Tom LeClaire, president of the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families, in an email to supporters. “We know Idaho charter schools will never get due process from this charter commission or staff.”

In a July 16 guest opinion, and in a sharp public rebuke of the commission, State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield called the tone of the meeting hurtful. “I will not make excuses for comments that disparage individuals, schools or communities,”  said Critchfield, who added that the commission will receive training on how to hold “appropriate discussions” about school performance.

But for some charter advocates, the damage appears to be already done.

Heritage Academy officials want to move out from under the charter commission’s purview; the school has asked the Jerome School District to take over as its authorizing body. Meanwhile, the families’ coalition has called on the state to disband the charter commission, in favor of a new third-party group.

These governance questions arose Wednesday night, when Republican legislative leaders held a town hall meeting in Twin Falls.

In an Idaho Education News interview Thursday, House Speaker Scott Bedke cited “trust issues” stemming from the leaked audio from April, and said he favors moving Heritage Academy under the Jerome district’s jurisdiction. He didn’t rule out a new or revised state charter commission, but at this point, he said, “(that’s) not what most people want.”

The House speaker appoints two of the commission’s seven members. The Senate’s president pro tem appoints two members and the governor appoints three members.

Idaho Education News reporter Devin Bodkin contributed to this report.