White Pine Charter School is a high-performing school full of excellent students and teachers. It has recently established the only high school in the city specializing in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a vital addition to education in Idaho Falls where high-paying, high-tech jobs are abundant for those with an adequate education.
But this promising school has been failed profoundly both by the actions of its board in recent weeks and by the way the state government has organized the charter school system. White Pine students, parents and teachers deserve much better.
Locally, the board must set its house in order. Doing so will require not consolidating power — but giving it up.
White Pine’s most recent school board elections were conducted about as poorly as can be imagined. The incident makes clear that significant reforms are needed for the charter school system statewide.
There was no comprehensive list of who was eligible to vote and no concrete record of who had voted which way. Voting was so hamhandedly organized that manipulating the vote would be as simple as repeatedly filling out an online survey. There also were multiple, credible allegations that one board member urged school staff to vote for particular candidates.
The board’s decision to direct an attorney to investigate these allegations, which cost taxpayers more than $10,000, was made without an open vote. The board has admitted that this may have violated open meetings laws. In our judgment, it is crystal clear that the board did.
White Pine is a private nonprofit organization, but it is almost entirely funded by taxpayers, according to tax filings. Disasters of governance like those that have recently taken place at White Pine would never be tolerated at District 91 or District 93.
The board was right to determine that the results of the election it had organized and administered were deeply suspect. There may have been no better option than the one the board took: setting aside the election and vacating the contested seats.
While no better option may have been available, this decision nonetheless has sweeping consequences.
Through first running a thoroughly insecure and unverifiable election, then overturning the results, then changing the composition of the board by fiat and making a new appointment to it, the White Pine School Board has lost its electoral mandate and much of its legitimacy.
How can any parent of a White Pine student, or any of the school’s dedicated teachers, possibly put faith in it?
Why should taxpayers believe the millions they send White Pine each year will be safe there?
The board should take immediate steps to restore confidence:
1. The board should pay the bills and complete other basic daily tasks, but avoid any major policy decisions.
2. The school board’s sole focus should be on establishing the infrastructure for a secure election, and a new election should be held as soon as possible.
3. No current board member should be a candidate in that election to avoid any further perception of impropriety.
Only once a new slate of properly elected board members is in place will the board have the legitimacy and mandate to resume ordinary functioning. Experienced board members could continue to serve in a strictly advisory capacity, but they should not set policy.
There could hardly be a worse time for this debacle to unfold. White Pine’s new STEM high school is in its first year of operation. For that reason, some on the board may wish to take another course.
Relatively few charter schools still have elected boards, and the idea of converting White Pine’s board into an appointed one has been floated. Charter school boards require too much experience and expertise to deal with regular turnover, the argument goes. Why not do away with elections?
That would be a disaster. If the board moves to end elections, it will carve its illegitimacy in stone.
Further, these events make clear that state lawmakers should implement greater accountability for charter school boards as a condition for receiving state funding.
The teachers at charter schools are accountable for their students’ test scores. But charter school boards, the people running the show, have comparatively little accountability for the way they conduct business.
The state should require all charter schools to be governed by elected boards as a condition of receiving state funding. Such elections should be administered not by the school board but by county clerks, who are both more neutral and have more experience running secure, fair elections.