An investigation into the school board election at White Pine Charter School was never publicly approved, instead being discussed in an executive session closed to the public, which may have violated Idaho’s open meeting law.
Attorney Douglas Nelson was retained by the board of trustees in early June to look into allegations of campaigning by board members and irregular results of the online voting system. Nelson’s report, which the board paid for using public funds, was approved during a May 28 executive session and was never approved by a public motion.
Documents obtained by the Post Register include emails and text messages show that school officials were concerned around the time of the executive sessions that the investigation may not have been correctly approved.
On May 29, board member Joanna Stark texted fellow board member Adam Frugoli a copy of the resolution was discussed in the executive session. The resolution plan would invalidate the election results and hire a third party to audit the election results and suggest potential changes to the school.
An item that would have discussed the election was removed from the public section of a meeting on May 30 and moved into an executive session. During that session, Stark and Frugoli, who attended the meeting remotely, continued to text about whether the move was legal.
“This better follow open meeting law,” Stark texted at one point.
“Why start now?” Frugoli replied. He later texted that he felt “physically sick” after the executive session ended.
Nelson was retained June 3 to look into potential wrongdoing during the election and given a budget of $5,000. He eventually billed the school for $8,268 for his investigation and recommendations.
The election concerns were sparked in part by a letter the school received submitted by an anonymous teacher at White Pine, claiming that Stark and a school administrator had suggested that multiple teachers vote for candidates Emma Lee Robinson and Amber Beck during the week of the election.
Stark denied the charge in a May 31 letter she submitted to the board, saying she had only made a generic statement about candidates being qualified to serve on the board and never told teachers who to vote for.
She also claimed that she got a call from state Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, after the election but before the results were made public. Horman told her that Tony Lima should remain on the school board, despite getting the fewest votes of the six candidates, because he would be able to help the school obtain additional funding and grants.
“I informed her that I did not feel that this was the voice of the stakeholders and that increasing the board to fit him in, would not look and feel right ethically,” Stark wrote.
Horman said Friday she has a particular interest in promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the high school level, and she felt her actions were appropriate.
”Schools are always going to seek advice from lawmakers, and we want advice from them too,” she said. “There’s a two-way street.”
Nelson’s report found no conclusive evidence of electioneering and was mixed on whether the actions described was enough grounds to overturn an election result. He told the Post Register that the state electioneering law did not apply because the school was a nonprofit, allowing it to govern itself by its own bylaws, and the electioneering claims had no bearing on his final recommendations to the school.
His report did say, however, that there were several problems in how the district had managed the weeklong election. The school had no list of stakeholders, the people related to the school who were eligible to vote in the election, to check the ballots against. No safeguards had been put in place to prevent people from voting multiple times online.
All the electronic votes, which made up 60 percent of all votes cast, were rejected after the school was unable to connect them to a stakeholder in the school. The paper results closely matched the electronic results but the physical records were thrown away after milk was spilled on them after the results had been counted.
After another executive session meeting on June 28, the board made a public motion to overturn the election results, which had named Beck and Robinson as new trustees and re-elected Jim Seamens. The board eventually decided to remove all the seats that had been involved in the election and appointed Gina Stevenson as treasurer to reach the minimum of five members needed to make up the board.
Marisa Morgan, who oversaw the elections as president of the Parent-Faculty Association, was against the decision to completely reverse the election results.
“I think the votes cast by the paper ballots alone were an accurate representation of what the stakeholders had voted for,” Morgan said.
Frugoli, who was named chairman of the school board after the election results were overturned, said the open meeting violation and the rest of Nelson’s report would be addressed at the school board meeting on Sept. 3. The board was also planning to receive training from the Idaho School Boards Association to prevent future violations or issues.
No date has yet been established by White Pine Charter School to hold new elections. ISBA spokeswoman Quinn Perry said that no training had been scheduled yet but that the group was monitoring the situation at White Pine.