An audio recording of an Idaho Public Charter School Commission closed-door meeting has prompted two charter schools to express doubts about the commission’s integrity and oversight.

The chairman of the state charter school commission, Alan Reed, responded to that criticism on Saturday morning with a press release stating that the commission was correct for not opening the closed-door meeting to the public. He also said his comments during the meeting have been misquoted and mischaracterized.

Heritage Academy, a Jerome charter school with 175 students in grades kindergarten through eighth, says it’s outraged after obtaining the audio recording of the charter school commission’s April 11 executive session held in Boise. Heritage said it obtained the audio recording from four different sources to ensure its accuracy.

The Blackfoot Community Learning Center, a charter school in Blackfoot that educates 600 students in grades K-8, also obtained the audio recording and has made it available online at https://emaillargefile.com/p/HLM8FLPYRBC.

Reed said in his press release that the April 11 closed-door meeting was accidentally recorded by the commission and then accidentally released by the commission.

“Due to these two mistakes we did not do very well for those children,” Reed said in reference to the children who attend the charter schools discussed during the recorded meeting. “I am sorry about that and sincerely apologize to them.”

SHOULD CLOSED-DOOR MEETING HAVE BEEN OPEN TO PUBLIC?

After listening to the recording, Blackfoot Community Learning Center said via a press release issued late Friday night that it believes the commission probably violated the state’s open meeting laws by not holding the April 11 discussion in public.

Blackfoot Community Learning Center stated, “The purpose of open meeting laws is to allow for transparency and input from the public. The commission spent a great deal of time discussing in (the April 11) 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.”

Much of Reed’s press release dealt with the issue of whether the meeting should have been open to the public.

“Some schools had small data numbers and due to our responsibility to keep individual student information confidential, we were instructed to hold the discussion concerning these schools in an executive session,” Reed said via his press release. “This was the direction given to us by our attorney from the (Idaho) Attorney General’s Office. Our attorney was present during the entire meeting and was responsible to make sure we did not stray into any topic or discussion not appropriate under the law.”

Heritage officials issued a press release on Friday afternoon voicing concerns about the “disparaging comments” the audio recording allegedly revealed the commission members saying about Heritage and other charter schools in the state.

The charter school commission is the state government agency in charge of overseeing Idaho’s approximately 50 public charter schools. Those schools educate over 20,000 Idaho children.

OUTRAGE OVER COMMENTS ABOUT JEROME

Heritage officials said the audio recording revealed the charter school commission’s members taking “potshots” at the Jerome School District and “slamming” the residents of Jerome.

Heritage officials are very upset with charter school commission chairman Reed, who was allegedly caught on the audio recording saying about Jerome, “What are we going to do with that town?” Heritage officials also said Reed, a dairyman, is heard on the recording saying he would not consider opening one of his ice cream shops in Jerome because “ice cream doesn’t build brain cells.”

Heritage officials said the commission’s comments were particularly hurtful considering that 95 percent of Heritage’s students need government assistance to pay for lunch, 25 percent are students with disabilities, and 23 percent are Hispanic children trying to learn how to speak English.

In response Reed said, “Our discussion (at the April 11 executive session) was concerning the test scores of the students at (Heritage Academy) and the local (school) district. They are well below state average and I was concerned for the children’s education in the area. The schools have a challenge there. Administrators for the charter school have even expressed the unique challenge they have to educate their students. This is what I said, ‘As a society what are we going to do with that town.’ My continued sentence was to help with those children. Many people began speaking and drowned out my sentence and thoughts. My comments and thoughts were only for the help and benefit of the children and their schools.”

Reed continued, “The next quote they gave me credit for was I wouldn’t consider opening an ice cream shop in Jerome because ice cream doesn’t build brain cells. As you listen to the recording we are discussing the data of the schools (and) another commissioner makes a comment off topic that maybe if I put an ice cream store in Jerome it would help. This suggestion was so off topic I made an off-the-cuff remark back at that commissioner because that was not a solution. Was it meant as a disparaging or disrespectful comment at the people of Jerome? No. It was a response back to a person for something they said. In the (Heritage Academy) press release I was truly misquoted and completely taken out of context.”

The Blackfoot Community Learning Center came to Jerome’s defense in its response to the audio recording. The learning center stated, “The comments made about the community of Jerome and Heritage Academy are not becoming or worthy of a unit of Idaho state government. The attitude toward the people of Jerome is very disheartening and reflects poorly on the commission as well. The remarks are even more troubling given that Heritage Academy serves many at-risk and special needs students.”

The audio recording of the commission also included what Heritage officials are calling “factually incorrect statements” about their school and its leadership.

NO CONFIDENCE IN CHARTER SCHOOL COMMISSION

Heritage officials said via their press release that after listening to the recording they do not believe “the current commission and its staff are capable of providing proper leadership for Idaho’s public charter schools.”

Heritage school board chairman Carroll Cone said about the commission, “It is very concerning that individuals like those who participated in the (recorded) discussion have been appointed or hired. It is my hope that these individuals could be replaced with those who support all Idaho public schools, not just those they consider high-performing.”

Longtime Jerome resident Anneli Crouch, who has children attending Jerome School District schools and Heritage Academy, was quoted in the Heritage press release as saying, “It is concerning for the Jerome community and for all of the communities criticized and slandered by the comments of commissioners and their staff members. Our children and our communities deserve better.”

Blackfoot Community Learning Center officials said that the commission also unjustly criticized their school on the audio recording.

The learning center stated via its press release, “We are troubled by remarks made about our school. We are a group of educators, volunteers, and parents who spend many hours each year trying to provide educational options for the people of Blackfoot and Bingham County. The remarks of the commission on the recording would indicate that many of the commissioners do not value the many volunteers or educators around the state who serve charter schools.”

The Blackfoot Community Learning Center said the state charter school commissioners caught on the audio recording were also unjustly critical of the Idaho School Boards Association.

Heritage officials said via their press release that they too believe the April 11 executive session should have been open to the public instead of being held behind closed doors with no members of the public present.

“Idaho open meeting law allows public boards and commissions to discuss a limited number of issues such as protected student records, in closed meetings,” the Heritage press release stated. “However, the commissioners and their staff members used the guise of discussing student data (at the April 11 executive session) to talk about individual schools, school employees, school boards, communities and state education organizations outside of the public’s view.”

Heritage continued, “In addition, commissioners and staff members deliberated and planned actions that are only allowed to be discussed in an open forum where Idaho’s citizens can observe, comment, and remain informed.”

Reed reiterated in his press release that the commission was correct in holding the meeting in executive session with no members of the public present and the Idaho Attorney General’s Office is in agreement with that decision.

“We were under the close eye of the attorney from the Attorney General’s Office and we were told everything was in line with the law,” Reed stated. “We take the open meeting law very seriously and so does the attorney general. That is why one of his attorneys is with us all of the time.”

ATTORNEY GENERAL AND GOVERNOR CONTACTED ABOUT RECORDING

Heritage officials said they have contacted the Idaho Attorney General’s Office about the audio recording and the school is working with its own attorney to further investigate the commission.

The Attorney General’s Office told the Journal late Friday afternoon that it is aware of the concerns regarding the audio recording but is not ready to make further comment.

Gov. Brad Little’s office has also been made aware of the audio recording but the governor has not yet issued a statement.

The Blackfoot Community Learning Center said in its press release that “it is unfortunate that the recorded executive session will injure the reputations” of the commission’s members.

The learning center stated, “After this episode, we hope the Idaho Public Charter School Commission will work to rebuild the relationship of trust it should have with the many charter schools in the state.”

Reed acknowledged in his press release that some of the commission’s comments during the April 11 executive session could be interpreted as “harsh, tough and unsupportive.”

But he added, “When you are in a meeting where you believe you are having a very frank and honest discussion that is only between you and another person you do not protect your language the way you would in a public meeting. You are not always ‘politically correct.’ That does not mean you are not sincere about wanting to help, serve and do what ever you can to help someone. The commission only wants to help each school and the children that attend to be better each day school is in session.”