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Charter administrators received $51,000 in undocumented payments

Education

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AMMON — The former head administrator and the former business manager at an Idaho Falls charter school received more than $51,000 in undocumented payments over an 11-month period, according to an Idaho Education News investigation. Amounts paid to the men do not appear in board agendas or minutes.

Between May 2019 and January, White Pine Charter School executive director Jeremy Clarke received $20,921.82 in bonuses, stipends and a raise for expanding facilities to include a high school and for increasing enrollment, according to payroll records EdNews obtained from the school. Business manager Nick Burrows received $30,079.55 in similar payments over the same period.

Taxpayers were not aware of amounts paid to Clarke and Burrows because they do not appear in White Pine’s board minutes or agendas. The payments do appear in the payroll statements EdNews obtained through public records requests.

White Pine is a public charter school that survives on tax dollars and public and private grants. The school enrolls some 700 students and has an annual budget of $4.5 million.

Burrows resigned from White Pine in February, after what he called an “unpleasant” final month at the school. Trustees fired Clarke in March for an “ongoing breach of school policies and a failure to follow board directives,” according to an email White Pine board chair EmmaLee Robinson sent to parents in March.

The men defend the extra payments.

“Everything that was paid to me was board approved,” Clarke told EdNews.

Robinson said she recently became aware of payments approved prior to her election and appointment as the board’s chair on Dec. 2. She said she is investigating those payments.

Emails obtained by EdNews show that approval for some of the payments came from a current and former trustee and from Clarke, without the board’s full approval.

The Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office is investigating issues at White Pine, investigations lieutenant Tony Glenn confirmed. Glenn would not say what the office is investigating or provide details.

“I encourage the Sherriff’s office to investigate the matter and prosecute Mr. Clarke and Burrows to the full extent of the law,” said Adam Frugoli, who chaired White Pine’s board from May 2019 to December and signed off on some of the payments to the administrators.

What Clarke and Burrows got, and when

Payroll records dating back to May 2019 reveal at least nine payments to Clarke and Burrows beyond their salaries. Let’s walk through the payments, starting with Clarke:

  • June 4: Clarke received a $3,000 bonus. EdNews could not verify board approval via minutes, but a check stub dated May 24 designates the payment as an “enrollment bonus.”
  • June 20:  Clarke received $3,000 on top of his regular pay of $8,524.09. A contract posted to the school’s website details $6,000 payable to Clarke for performing “an extra duty” for the school. Clarke told EdNews the payment was part of this $6,000 for his work opening a high school for White Pine, which opened this school year. Approval of the agreement is not in board minutes.
  • Aug. 20: Clarke received $3,000 on top of his normal pay. The payment was the second installment related to the $6,000 for opening the high school, he told EdNews.
  • Dec. 3: Clarke received a $10,000 bonus for opening the high school. Dec. 2 minutes detailing the bonus also include approval of an unspecified raise and three-year contract for Clarke, whose monthly pay jumped from $8,524.09 to $9,485 in December and January. Clarke’s pay returned to its original amount from February to April, before trustees fired him.

Here’s what Burrows received:

  • May 5: compensation agreement, dated April 11, 2019, reveals a $12,000 raise for Burrows from the prior year, taking his annual pay from $58,000 to $70,000. Board minutes do not reflect approval of the raise. Payroll records show that Burrows received at least $10,800 tied to the increase from May 2019 to February, when he left the school.
  • June 20: Burrows received $9,779.55 on top of his regular monthly pay of $5,913.34. He told EdNews Friday that $2,000 of this extra pay was part of $4,000 he received for his work starting White Pine’s high school. A contract posted to the school’s website details $4,000 for Burrows to perform “an extra duty” for the school. EdNews could not find approval of the contract in board minutes. Burrows said the remaining $7,779.55 was for three things — bonuses for securing grants, pay for coaching debate and a $5,000 “net bonus” from Clarke for securing an $800,000 federal grant. (Burrows’ compensation agreement with the school caps bonuses for grants at $3,500.)
  • Aug. 20: Burrows received $2,000 on top of his normal pay. The payment was the second installment for his work starting the high school, he told EdNews.
  • Oct. 20: Burrows received $2,500 on top of his regular pay. He told EdNews he received the bonus because a school audit found no weaknesses or deficiencies. On top of bonuses for securing grants, Burrows’ compensation agreement includes up to $5,000 in possible bonuses for clean audits.
  • Dec. 3: Burrows received a $5,000 bonus. Minutes from a Dec. 2 board meeting detail the board’s approval of bonuses for Burrows and Clarke for opening the high school, but no amounts are included.

Altogether, payroll records obtained from the school reveal that Clarke received $20,921.82 and Burrows received $30,079.55 above their salaries over 11 months.

Clarke and Frugoli approved some payments

Clarke and Frugoli approved some of the payments without the full board’s consent, according to emails and records obtained by EdNews.

In an email to Burrows dated May 23, 2019, Frugoli, then the board’s treasurer, directed Burrows to pay Clarke $3,000 for an enrollment bonus. Frugoli wrote that he had spoken to fellow trustee Joanna Stark about the payment and that “this will complete our obligation to Mr. Clarke.”

Meanwhile, approval for Burrows’ $5,000 bonus in June came from Clarke.

“I would like to pay you a net bonus for your work attaining some very high-profile and large grants,” Clarke wrote to Burrows in a July 15 email, weeks after the business manager received $9,779.55 on top of his normal salary in June.

Clarke told EdNews that trustees had discussed giving Burrows a raise for securing a grant from Bluum, but that discussion does not appear in board minutes. In May, nonprofit charter support group Bluum gave White Pine an $800,000 federal grant to help the school increase enrollment.

Frugoli, who had by then become board chair, told EdNews that he recalled signing off on the $9,779.55 payment because Burrows said there was an issue with payroll going through that month. Burrows said he recalls Frugoli signing off on a regular payroll check that didn’t enter his account on a different date.

Frugoli resigned abruptly during White Pine’s Dec. 2 board meeting, after a tense exchange with former trustee Amber Beck. He is now running in a contested primary for the Senate seat in District 30, which includes the city of Ammon and rural parts of Bonneville County. Frugoli’s opponent is Kevin Cook, a software engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory. 

Frugoli defended the payment to Clarke by saying Stark, who was then vice chair of the board, told him “three or four times” that the school owed Clarke money. Frugoli told EdNews he felt that approving the payment would settle the matter and that he now feels Clarke and Burrows lied to trustees.

“I was extremely upset to learn that members of the White Pine Charter School admin had lied to me and other board members in order enrich themselves in unauthorized pay that had direct deposited,” Frugoli told EdNews in a statement.

Stark, who is still a board member, did not respond to a request on Monday for comments about payments to Clarke and Burrows.

Tony Lima, who chaired the board from July 2017 to May 31, 2019, sent EdNews an email, dated Feb. 27, in which he told trustees that Clarke did not qualify for a bonus.

Minutes include approval of some bonuses but no amounts

Minutes from the Dec. 2 board meeting detail board approval of “bonuses” for Clarke and Burrows for “starting the STEM high school,” but no amounts are included.

The minutes also reveal the board’s approval of an unspecified raise and a three-year contract for Clarke, also with no amount. The three-year contract, obtained by EdNews, reveals a more than $11,500 annual raise for Clarke.

On Feb. 12, White Pine trustees acknowledged violating open meeting law during the Dec. 2 meeting, when the bonuses and the raise were approved. The Feb. 12 minutes do not specify how the board violated the law.

Clarke told EdNews Friday that the board rescinded the raise and contract extension as a result of the open meeting violation, yet trustees ratified “bonuses to employee A & B in December” during the same Feb. 12 meeting. These approved bonuses also do not specify an amount in board minutes.

What now?

Clarke and Burrows denied any wrongdoing.

Burrows told EdNews that he even told the board that the $5,000 bonus for securing the grant from Bluum felt “unethical” before accepting the payment.

He also doubted whether his compensation agreement with the school — and the $12,000 raise he received as part of it — ever went before the board.

“I worked for Jeremy,” Burrows said.

Robinson said she began probing past finances prior to Burrows’ resignation and Clarke’s firing. She would not discuss personnel matters but has told EdNews that she hopes to “run a clean house” at the school.

Robinson said she has asked Stark to resign.

Disclosure: Bluum and Idaho Education News are both funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. 

This article was originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on May 5, 2020.

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