The controversy surrounding an Idaho Public Charter School Commission closed-door meeting that was accidentally recorded and then released continues with the latest development being an investigation by the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.
Some charter schools and affiliated organizations have expressed concerns about the commission’s discussions and think those discussions violated the open meetings law.
In fact, Heritage Academy, a Jerome charter school with 175 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has gone so far as to file a request with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office to investigate the Charter School Commission, according to an Associated Press report.
Officials with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office say they have received the complaint and under Idaho Code section 74-208(5), which references enforcement of the open meetings law, they have a duty to conduct an investigation. They would not comment further on the matter.
Heritage Academy attorney Joe Borton said the investigation is necessary to address alleged bias against certain charter schools, according to the AP report.
The school is not alone in its concerns.
In a recent news release, the Idaho Coalition of Charter School Families says the audio recording of the April 11 meeting “unveils a troubling track record of deception, manipulation, philosophical bias, and vindictive attitudes toward schools, students, parents, and entire communities,” according to a news release.
And, like others, the coalition questions the legality of the meeting being held in an executive session.
“The legally obtained audio file recently reported in the Idaho news clearly recorded commissioners and staff misusing student data to enact an Executive Session in violation of Idaho law,” according to the news release. “What can be heard on the file is egregious evidence that the Idaho Charter School Commission has strayed from its original mission of helping struggling schools. The very entity created to support school choice and alternative educational models has instead set measures of success by how many charter schools it can shut down, with staff coaching commissioners about how to lobby legislators, the governor, and the State Board of Education.”
The coalition recently posted a 23-second video on its Facebook page that shows a young girl walking up to a closed door. The video states: “When the State Charter School Commission holds secret meetings behind closed doors ... Adults aren’t the only ones locked out. Our kids are too. This is not how Idaho is supposed to work.”
The Idaho Public Charter School Commission is the state government agency in charge of overseeing Idaho’s approximately 50 public charter schools. Those schools educate more than 20,000 Idaho children.
Alan L. Reed, chairman of the commission, has said they reviewed the renewal of a few charter schools in April and they discussed the majority of them in an open meeting since their student data was large enough that individual students could not be identified.
“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. This was the direction given to us by our attorney from the Attorney General’s Office,” Reed said in a news release. “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.”
While their goal was to keep individual student data confidential, the executive session was accidentally recorded and then released, Reed said.
“Due to these two mistakes we did not do very well for those children,” Reed said in his news release. “I am sorry about that and sincerely apologize to them.”
Mike Keckler, spokesman for the Idaho State Board of Education, issued the following response about the executive session:
“The Public Charter School Commission oversees many public charter schools in Idaho. That oversight includes performance reviews through collection and analysis of student education data. State and federal student privacy laws prohibit the public disclosure of personally identifiable information from student records. Idaho’s open meeting law allows discussion in executive session of information that cannot otherwise be publicly disclosed. The Commission and its staff operate within the Idaho statutory framework for authorizing and reviewing public charter schools.”
But the Idaho Coalition of Charter School Families believes the nearly two-hour meeting contained little that should have been included in an executive session. And officials say the staff and commissioners made disparaging remarks about schools and their leaders and boards as well as the Idaho School Boards Association, legislators and members of the administration.
Officials with Heritage Academy have 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 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.
Tom Leclaire, president of the Idaho Coalition of Charter School Families, said he was disgusted by what he heard on the recording.
“Most troubling to me, the Commission staff has shown a widespread pattern of behavior which mirrors the training they’ve received from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers,” Leclaire said in the news release. “They favor some schools and attempt to destroy others based solely on their personal views. Unfortunately, this has all happened behind closed doors, based on false information, and without giving the schools the opportunity to even know of the charges, let alone defend themselves.”
Leclaire says that’s not how Idaho works.
“We do not believe any school authorized by this commission will ever be treated with unbiased due process in the days, months, and years ahead,” he said in the news release.
Reed believes his comments have been taken out of context and misquoted since the recording was released. But he also recognizes that some of the things that were said by the commission and staff on the recording could be interpreted as sounding “harsh, tough and unsupportive.”
“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,’” Reed said in his news release. “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.”