John Miller

John Miller

Let me first say this: I have nothing against charter schools.

From our days in some of the more populated parts of Utah, my wife and I shared a desire to send at least our youngest child to a less-populated and “more civilized” place to attend school in her junior high/middle school years.

Before then, our daughter spent maybe half of her school years in a church school setting, shuttling her and our two other children back and forth every day from one side of the Salt Lake valley to the other, which meant two round trips for us ... every day. The rest of those years were spent in closer, overpopulated Utah public schools,

Otherwise, we spent years trying to get our daughter into the nearby charter school, where you had to be lucky enough to get in through a lottery system, and families with children already in the school got preference.

In the ninth grade, she finally made it in to that charter school. It was a good experience.

To the charter school parents in Bingham County, I get it.

Now we’re in Idaho, and I’m getting a look at Idaho’s charter school system. No school system is perfect — whether it’s public, private, or charter. I know that the local charter school system at the classroom level is doing just fine.

I have to be brutally honest here.

From what I’ve seen of the state’s charter school system lately, I’m left scratching my head when it comes to the leadership level — from Boise to Blackfoot.

At the broader level, the Idaho Public Charter School Commission has come under fire recently as a result of reports from the panel’s discussions in executive session that were accidentally recorded and released in which comments were made focusing on Heritage Academy, a Jerome charter school with 175 students in grades kindergarten through eighth, with less-than-complimentary comments allegedly being made by leadership about Jerome schools and residents of Jerome in general.

That’s a blemish on Idaho’s charter school leadership. That’s a blemish that needs to be scrubbed.

Blackfoot is far from immune when it comes to controversy in charter school leadership lately.

On May 28, Public Charter School Commission chairman Alan Reed — who drew the most heat over the recorded remarks about Jerome — wrote a letter to Bingham County Prosecutor Paul Rogers, advising that an investigation may be needed into whether retired Blackfoot charter school administrator Fred Ball may have violated state law in his role as the local charter schools leader.

On Monday, it was reported that “we have requested some agencies to investigate the issue, and we are waiting to see the results,” Rogers told the online Idaho Education News.

“Financial investigations take outside resources to gather all of the relevant material, and from the onset of the reports, it sounded to me like there is potential to have to investigate any financially related activity,” Rogers said, adding that the investigation could take “quite some time.”

There is found another blemish. And we’re still not done yet.

Blackfoot charter schools have been under fire for not turning in applications for conditional use permits or transition plans with the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. It’s brought the need to hold a public hearing June 25 on the matter — not at city hall, but in the more spacious Nuart Theater so more people could attend.

On the plus side, Debbie Steele — the new administrator at the Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center (BCCLC) — seemed willing to do what was requested by the P&Z board, willing to work with the board, and now it appears BCCLC will get a conditional use permit when the board meets this Tuesday. Apparently, she took the 15 minutes or so required to fill out the necessary paperwork so school business can go on as usual.

On the negative side, Bingham Academy seems unwilling enough that it presented a newly retained attorney at the June 25 hearing to tell the P&Z board that what was happening could result in further legal action, i.e. lawsuits against the city.

In a letter dated July 17 to Bingham Academy leadership, Blackfoot P&Z Administrator Kurt Hibbert stated, “At a meeting held March 14, 2019 in Mr. Fred Ball’s office, the current status and need for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for Bingham Academy was discussed. This was a follow up meeting to a meeting held August 4, 2018 with myself, the Mayor (Marc Carroll), Mr. Ball and Mr. (Mark) Fisk where the issues surrounding noncompliance of Bingham Academy with the Land Use Code was communicated. The City was assured by Mr. Ball and Mr. Fisk at that time that a CUP application and transition plan for the school would be forthcoming. No such application has been received to date. The requirement of the City Planning and Zoning Commission to provide a Transition Plan to transition the school to a different suitable location was discussed, as well as the fact that this plan was required to be completed by August 13, 2018. This Transition Plan was suggested as a mitigating measure to allow the school to operate through the 2018- 2019 school year. Had the condition of a transition plan been met, the CUP would have been valid until May 24, 2019. However, since no plan was submitted, the school has been in violation of the requirements allowing a school in this commercial zoning district since August 13, 2018. The facility has no valid CUP and is out of compliance with the city land use code. Use of the facility as a school must cease immediately.”

There appear to be various reasons why Bingham Academy leadership or its attorney refuses to turn in a CUP application — it hasn’t been required before so why now, it hasn’t been required of other public schools so why BA, and — from the attorney’s response — there has been a “total lack of notice from the P&Z Commission regarding everything concerning Bingham Academy.” We have a case of “they said, they said.”

The city is not disputing the quality of education received at Bingham Academy, that’s been said more than once. All it’s asking for is required paperwork.

Steele was able to turn in required paperwork, so BCCLC can go on its merry way. Bingham Academy, on the other hand, faces possible closure. Is that on the city’s shoulders? It shouldn’t be.

There’s malfeasance, and there’s nonfeasance. What we’re seeing here is a pretty clear case of nonfeasance. Bingham Academy leadership seems bound and determined to take it to the courts.

Is it worth it? Is it worth the cost of taking it to court, or is it worth it just to sit down, put in the time that it takes to fill out the paperwork, pay the fees needed for legal notices, etc., and — like with BCCLC — just go on their merry way?

This has reached the point of ridiculousness. This is a blemish, and it needs to be scrubbed.

If it continues at this rate, the biggest losers of all will be the students. What is it that Bingham Academy leadership hopes to gain through this? Is whatever they hope to gain worth it to the students? What are the students learning out of all this outside-the-classroom legal gamesmanship?

Fill out the paperwork. Pay the fees. Move on. Now.

John Miller is editor of the Bingham County Chronicle.