The Idaho Public Charter School Commission on Thursday took the unusual step of rejecting the renewal agreement for Monticello Montessori Charter School in East Idaho after learning the school had not paid payroll taxes since 2014 and had not met academic performance measures.
Monticello Montessori opened in 2010 and serves about 150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade in the town of Ammon, which borders Idaho Falls.
The action to reject Monticello Montessori’s renewal agreement does not mean the commission voted to close the school. Instead, the commission will move forward with a renewal hearing, with legal counsel for the school and charter commission present, on March 8. At that point, the commission will weigh whether to revoke the school’s charter and begin the process of closing it, or to renew the school’s performance charter with conditions attached.
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The Idaho Public Charter School Commission is made up of seven commissioners who are appointed either by Idaho’s governor or Republican legislative leaders. The commission authorizes new charter schools, oversees 63 existing charter schools across the state and considers the renewal of charter schools it has authorized on a rolling, five-year basis.
Since moving to the five-year renewal and review cycle in 2014, the commission has only not renewed one charter school, director Jenn Thompson previously told the Idaho Capital Sun.
In other action Thursday, the commission gridlocked over a renewal application for the unaccredited Peace Valley Charter School in Boise. But ultimately commissioners voted to renew Peace Valley’s charter — with seven conditions attached — for another five-year period. Commissioners also agreed to renew 14 other charter schools during Thursday’s meeting at the Joe R. Williams Building in Boise.
Monticello Montessori didn’t pay federal payroll taxes for about eight years
Commissioners rejected Monticello Montessori Charter School’s conditional renewal agreement after recently hired school staff members uncovered and disclosed that previous Monticello Montessori Charter School staff had not paid federal payroll taxes between 2014 and 2022. That means the school is in default on its financial obligations.
The school’s new business manager, Carrie Smith, told commissioners that when she went to file payroll taxes last summer, for the second quarter of the year, she noticed the taxes for the previous quarter hadn’t been filed. After some digging, Smith said, school officials learned taxes hadn’t been paid since 2014.
Monticello Montessori has since paid more than $100,000 to the IRS in an attempt to repay the taxes, Smith said, but the IRS has not responded to let the school know if that covers all the back taxes or if there will be financial penalties imposed.
A Nov. 15, 2022, report from Thompson, the director of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, also noted academic concerns at Monticello Montessori and pointed out that it took the school until 2022 to meet a legal requirement to have a functional website where its budget, expenses and other transparency documents are posted.
“The school has not made academic progress, and did not meet standard on any academic measures in fiscal year 2022,” Thompson wrote in the report.
Idaho Public Charter School Commission member Brian Scigliano said he was very concerned about the unpaid taxes and the possibility of the IRS handing down financial penalties.
“That is very, very concerning to me, and I don’t know what those penalties will be, but I feel very uncomfortable with this going forward,” Scigliano said during the meeting.
Although an administrator and business manager from Monticello Montessori attended Thursday’s hearing via online video conference, none of the members of the school board attended or were available to answer questions. That frustrated Scigliano and Idaho Public Charter School Commission Chairman Alan Reed, who said he worries that a nonfunctioning school board can wreak havoc on a school.
After a lengthy discussion, commissioners voted unanimously to reject a renewal agreement for Monticello Montessori and instead move forward with the March 8 hearing.
The hearing allows commissioners to more fully consider the issues facing the school and weigh options, which include not renewing the school’s performance certificate and beginning the process of closing the school, or coming up with a plan of action to address the concerns the school faces.
Monticello Montessori’s performance certificate is set to expire June 30, state records show.
Peace Valley’s charter renewed despite lack of required accreditation
A divided Idaho Public Charter School Commission agreed Thursday to conditionally renew Peace Valley Charter School for an additional five years following a one-hour discussion about ongoing concerns with the school.
Peace Valley, a Boise-based charter school that opened in 2018, did not comply with a state requirement to achieve accreditation by July 1, 2021. Additionally, Thompson and state charter school regulators filed reports outlining multiple concerns over Peace Valley’s academic performance, the school’s special education program, school facilities, the supervision of students and communication with parents and state agencies.
Peace Valley administrator Andrew Ross and board chairman William Paul told commissioners Thursday the school is a candidate for accreditation through the state’s approved accreditation body Cognia, and they believe the school will achieve full accreditation by July 1, 2021.
Ross is leaving his position at the end of the school year, and Paul said the board will split his responsibilities in two to hire a principal and a director of operations, who will be focused on securing accreditation. Paul did not provide a specific plan for achieving accreditation, but said the school’s new leaders will help formulate the plan once they are hired.
During Thursday’s hearing, commissioners expressed concern that years of issues had piled up at Peace Valley and weren’t addressed until the school came up for review.
“You’ve got an idea going forward, but we’ve got five years of bad news,” Reed told Peace Valley officials at Thursday’s meeting. “I mean no worry (on your part) about getting to where you need to be. I don’t have a question. This isn’t working and I’m not sure we (should) keep throwing effort after it, if it is not working. There has been no determination to make it happen until you are on the spot.”
Idaho Public Charter School Commission member Karen Echeverria made a motion to reject Peace Valley’s renewal agreement Thursday. But Echeverria’s motion resulted in a tied, 3-3 vote that forced Reed — the commission’s chairman — to cast the decisive tie-breaking vote. Reed hesitated before voting against rejecting the renewal agreement for Peace Valley.
The commission then voted 4-2 to accept Peace Valley’s renewal agreement for another five years with seven conditions attached the school is expected to meet.
The conditions include:
- Peace Valley must meet the state’s standard for debt service ratio by Nov. 15.
- Peace Valley must achieve full accreditation by July 1, 2024.
- Peace Valley must meet the state’s standard for financial measures including cash flow, financial compliance and debt-to-asset ratio by Nov. 15, 2024.
- Peace Valley must meet the state’s standard for operational measures including governance structure, oversight, operational compliance, student services and data security by Nov. 15, 2024.
- Peace Valley must meet academic standards for student literacy by Nov. 15, 2024.
- Peace Valley must meet academic standards for English language arts and math by Nov. 15, 2025.
State records show Peace Valley did not meet any of the academic standards for English, literacy and math in any of the five years the school has existed.
If Peace Valley fails to meet any of the conditions of its new five-year renewal agreement, the commission may schedule a hearing to consider revoking the school’s charter before the five years is up.
After the meeting, Reed told the Sun he was worried about Peace Valley but he decided to vote against rejecting the renewal agreement after Peace Valley school board member Michael Pinkerton, who had been sitting in the audience Thursday — and not as part of the school’s renewal presentation — jumped up to address the commission. Pinkerton said the board had erred in the past by not addressing poor academic test scores.
Peace Valley uses a Waldorf educational model that deliberately deemphasizes modern technology and incorporates movement, singing, drawing, dance, gardening, cooking, sewing and other skills into its curriculum. Pinkerton said the board ignored the academic performance problem for too long but has since made a commitment to building up students’ technology skills in hopes they can perform better on standardized tests the state administers on computers.
After the meeting, Reed said Pinkerton’s comments changed his mind about the school, because he had been looking for someone to take accountability for the school’s shortcomings and pledge to address them. Before Pinkerton shot up from his seat in the audience, Reed said that hadn’t happened.
“We had someone on the board that gave me confidence that they recognized they needed to make changes, and I hadn’t seen that before,” Reed told the Sun.
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When asked how he approached his decision about schools up for renewal, Reed said it is important to honor choices parents make in sending their students to schools like Peace Valley, which is the only Waldorf school in the Treasure Valley and one of two such schools in the state. Closing a school could lead to significant disruptions for the students who attend that school and their families, he said.
“I always know the children going to a school, typically, they love it and the parents love sending their kids there and the kids feel comfortable there,” Reed told the Sun. “So I always worry about if we’re creating a disruption for the kids, and I think we need to give the parents a choice, and if that choice is going to work, we’ve got to make sure we don’t disrupt the children.”
The Idaho Public Charter School Commission meets again at 9 a.m. Friday in the Joe R. Williams Building’s West Conference Room, 700 W. State St., in Boise.