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White Pine Charter trustees secretly approved electioneering probe

Education

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File photo | EastIdahoNews.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: EastIdahoNews.com has received additional information since first posting this article from IdahoEdNews.org. We are working on an in-depth story with new details that will be published next week.

IDAHO FALLS — White Pine Charter School trustees secretly agreed to investigate the fairness of a school board election — a decision that cost the school thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Trustees hired Idaho Falls attorney Doug Nelson to probe allegations of electioneering in the school’s May trustee election, according to an email from White Pine trustee Adam Frugoli. The school board never approved the probe — or mentioned tax dollars used to fund it — during an open meeting.

Idaho’s open meeting law requires the formation of public policy to be conducted in open meetings.

Frugoli, who became White Pine’s board chair after the election, originally defended the process. Yet after consulting with “several attorneys,” Frugoli told EdNews the process may have conflicted with Idaho’s open meeting law, and that trustees would address and correct the issue at the school’s upcoming Sept. 3 board meeting.

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“We never intended to be sneaky or put anything over anyone’s head,” Frugoli said.

TRUSTEES SECRETLY APPROVED THE PROBE

After learning that the investigation included a taxpayer obligation, EdNews requested minutes documenting trustees’ approval of the probe. White Pine CFO and board clerk Nick Burrows told EdNews that the request could not be met because the minutes did not exist.

“The discussion that lead to the investigation took place in executive session and there was not a corresponding motion after(ward),” Burrows said.

Still, a June 3 email from Frugoli to Nelson outlines the board’s request for an investigation into allegations of “wrongdoing” during the election, which ran from April 30 to May 7 and included both online and in-person voting.

Frugoli’s email includes a $5,000 estimated budget for hiring Nelson to investigate the matter.

Stakeholder complaints about the election prompted the board to reach a “conclusion inside executive (session) that we need to look into this,” Frugoli told EdNews.

ALLEGATIONS OF ELECTIONEERING

Frugoli’s email to Nelson included contact information for then-board chair Tony Lima, whom Frugoli said believed that fellow trustee Joanna Stark may have “rigged” the election. Stark had been appointed to oversee a committee in charge of the election.

Lima, one of two trustees to lose his seat in the election, told EdNews that his concerns stemmed from written claims that Stark, who was not a candidate in the election, had inappropriately promoted a certain candidate.

Stark told EdNews that school policy prohibited her from talking to the media. However, she pointed to a 10-page letter she wrote to the board denying telling “anyone how to vote (or) who to vote for.”

“It is appalling to me that board members would jump to seek legal investigation before personally asking and finding out through proper policy and procedure as to what events transpired.”

Stark wrote that she had disagreed with the board’s decision to investigate the matter “internally” and “quietly.”

Stark also outlined a phone conversation she had with Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, after the election. Prior to the public release of the election results, Stark said Horman requested that Lima be allowed to remain on the board, even though he had lost his seat. She said Horman touted Lima’s business and professional connections as key to securing future funding of the school’s planned expansion of its new STEM high school.

Horman told EdNews that she did contact Stark asking for Lima to remain in a position to help the school advance its STEM focus.

“Here we have INL (Idaho National Laboratory) in our backyard, but we don’t have a STEM school,” Horman told EdNews.

Horman said no one asked her to contact Stark.

NELSON’S FINDINGS

Nelson concluded in a report of the investigation that candidacy advocacy statements had been attributed to some of the school’s administrators.

Still, he found “no conclusive evidence that unlawful electioneering occurred.”

Nelson told EdNews that’s largely because charter school elections operate under The Idaho Nonprofit Corporation Act, which allows board elections to be governed by the school’s own bylaws.

This relieves charters from provisions of Idaho’s Public Integrity in Elections Act, of which traditional school districts are expected to adhere.

In a supplemental report of the investigation, Nelson said that witnesses later came forth with statements that Stark had made “strong statements of advocacy” for board candidates Emma Lee Robinson and Amber Beck.

“In particular, three of the witness(es) have attested that Joanna’s statements appeared clearly intended to solicit votes for (Robinson and Beck).”

Despite his opinion that no electioneering occurred under the law overseeing charters, Nelson outlined several problems in the election:

  • No list of potential voters was used in connection with the election.
  • There was no log of who had voted.
  • No special procedure was in place to determine if online votes were limited to stakeholders.
  • There was no tally of paper votes cast.
  • Online votes were not confirmed by name.
  • Paper ballots were “inadvertently” soiled by spilled milk and thrown away after the election.

Check stubs provided to EdNews by the school show Nelson charged $10,877 to conduct the investigation. Frugoli pointed out that a portion of Nelson’s payments stemmed from the attorney’s handling of public records requests stemming from the probe — though it’s hard to determine exactly how much, based on an itemized invoice.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Trustees voted after the election to nix the results. The decision revoked Amber Beck’s and Emma Lee Robinson’s victories over Lima and trustee Jakob Miller.

The board also said that Lima, Miller and trustee Jim Seamans, who was re-elected, should also lose their seats. This decision reduced the board to four. Trustees then voted to assume a five-member board by appointing Gina Stevenson as treasurer. Frugoli, the former treasurer, became the board’s new chair.

White Pine’s school board now includes:

  • Frugoli, chair.
  • Stark, vice chair.
  • Joni Larsen, secretary.
  • Gina Stevenson, treasurer.
  • Ethan Huffman, director.

Frugoli said acknowledgement and correction of the issue at the next board meeting will include:

  • Acknowledging possible open meeting and procurement of services violations.
  • Announcing training for trustees from the Idaho School Boards Association.
  • Disclosing the amount the school paid for Nelson’s investigation.
  • Accepting the results of the investigation.

This article was first published by IdahoEdNews.org. It is used here with permission.

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