Charter schools

Bingham Academy and Bingham Charter Community Learning Center at 1350 Parkway Dr.

BLACKFOOT – Bingham Academy submitted a conditional use permit (CUP) application for consideration by the Blackfoot Planning and Zoning Commission on Friday. The school paid the $325 fee for the application on Monday afternoon.

The school established another Blackfoot first with its application. “This is the first planning and zoning application we’ve ever had submitted to us by email,” Blackfoot Mayor Marc Carroll said on Friday.

TEMPORARY PERMIT

Blackfoot P&Z sent Bingham Academy a letter in July to formally inform them that they were out of compliance with the city’s land use and zoning ordinances. All schools within city limits are currently required to obtain a CUP, including businesses such as day cares, pre-schools, and dance studios; however, schools which were built before the current land use ordinances were passed are excluded because they are grandfathered in, including most of the schools operated by the Blackfoot School District.

Though the school had its annual state building inspection in April, the city arranged for inspection by both a state building inspector and the city fire marshal on Aug. 6. Immediately afterward, the city issued a temporary provisional CUP “with the understanding” that Bingham Academy would submit a CUP to Blackfoot P&Z within 30 days.

“Note that we didn’t say the temporary CUP expired in 30 days,” explained Kurt Hibbert, the P&Z administrator for Blackfoot. “We wanted to encourage the submission of the permit application, especially since the start of school was right around the corner. We’ve said all along, we just wanted the school to comply with the city’s codes.”

PERMIT CONFUSION

Bingham Academy uses combined former retail spaces for a movie theater and stores in the Riverside Plaza strip mall on Parkway Drive. Another school also uses former retail space at Riverside Plaza, the middle school for the Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center. The proximity of the two schools is the source of much of the permit confusion for Bingham Academy.

The high school was organized five years ago by the same group of administrators that ran BCCLC. The high school had never had its own CUP nor had it ever applied for one.

Prior to last summer, the city had not issued any out-of-compliance notices to the high school. The city believed that Bingham Academy and the BCCLC middle school were just two parts of the same school district under the same school board, which was not the case.

The confusion over the separation of the two charter schools was made worse by the practice of Bingham Academy and BCCLC middle school to share teachers and classroom space in Riverside Plaza.

Prior to the 2018-19 school year, the confusion was made worse since the two schools also shared some of their administration staff and even some financial accounts.

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission has since ordered Bingham Academy and BCCLC to clearly separate their finances and administrations. The two schools complied during the later half of the 2018-19 school year.

“We really thought it was all one school district,” Hibbert remarked in August. Since schools do not obtain business licenses, Blackfoot City Hall had no locally sourced paperwork which indicated that BCCLC and Bingham Academy were independent of one another.

TRANSITION PLAN

The permit application sent on Friday did not include the transition plan which the city requested.

The P&Z Commission has been asking for a transition plan for BCCLC and Bingham Academy for their move out of the strip mall and into a more appropriate location and building. The first request was made during the summer of 2018 when the city still believed the two schools belonged to the same school district. The city has met with the administrators of both schools several times since then as to the city’s expectation for such a plan.

The former head administrator of both Bingham Academy and BCCLC, Fred Ball, has stated to the city starting in 2011 that the schools were planning to move to a new school building they were planning to build.

Despite their independence from one another, BCCLC submitted a two page outline of a transition schedule as its transition plan in late 2018. That outline included both schools and indicated that the two would share the same building.

The P&Z commission has insisted on receiving a transition plan because it determined in 2018 that the schools in the strip mall were an incompatible land use. The purpose of the transition plan was to assure the commission that the schools were indeed taking steps to move to a more suitable facility.

P&Z based its determination of incompatible land use on the traffic and parking problems presented by the loading and unloading of school buses in a busy strip mall parking lot. The traffic and parking situation was compounded by complaints from at least five of the neighboring businesses.

BCCLC submitted a transition plan to P&Z this summer which it accepted in July.

BINGHAM ACADEMY PROTEST

The CUP application sent last week lacked a transition plan but it did include a letter from Bingham Academy’s attorney, Nathan Olson, protesting the necessity of such a document.

Olsen’s letter said there was no requirement in Blackfoot’s laws for a transition plan nor did Blackfoot have the authority to even demand such a thing as a condition of a CUP: “BA firmly stands by its position that no ‘transition plan’ should be required in order to continue its occupancy of the property. Such a condition imposed upon the school would be discriminatory, a violation of its property rights, due process rights, and an improper intrusion into the school’s affairs.”

The letter attached to the application also argued that even a CUP could not be required of the school.

Olson wrote: “BA still firmly holds the position that a CUP is unnecessary for its current use of the property. Nevertheless, this application is a good faith gesture to resolve this manufactured crisis … the record and history of both the school, the P&Z’s prior and current actions, and policies regarding school zoning in Blackfoot, must be clarified and corrected from the widespread misinformation that has been propagated.”

He further stated that all that state law and the Idaho State Public Charter School Commission require are a certificate of occupancy, a building inspection report, a fire marshal report and a lease agreement if the school is renting: “before BA would have ever been allowed to open and operate, the State Charter Commission would have had to review and confirm that all the occupancy and safety codes were in place and proper. The fact that the school was approved and has been renewed demonstrates that the occupancy requirements, including the appropriate approvals from the City, were met.”

Despite Olsen’s statements in his letter, Blackfoot’s P&Z and land use codes deal with the appropriate use of land in accordance with the city’s own zoning and comprehensive plan. In Blackfoot’s ordinances, the use of a school in a commercially zoned area requires a conditional use permit for the divergent non-commercial use of a commercial property according to the city’s ordinances. Given the actions of the commission since the summer of 2018, Blackfoot apparently does not agree that its own approval process was satisfied.