Idaho School Board Hid Superintendent’s Contract Buyout

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Grand County School District superintendent Scott Crane was given a $210,000 contract buyout in April from his former employer, the Blackfoot School District 55 Board in Idaho.

The Blackfoot school board then took steps to keep the payments secret, according to documents the district released under a court order.

Blackfoot School District 55 released a separation agreement and other records as part of an open records lawsuit filed by former teacher Joyce Bingham and the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Sixth District Judge David Nye ruled in favor of Bingham and the newspaper and ordered the district to make public documents related to the separation agreement reached in April with Crane. The records show the board agreed to make two payments of $105,428 to Crane for the remaining two years of his contract.

Crane said that he is limited in his ability to speak about the contract buyout due to a non-disclosure agreement.

In an April 2012 news story produced by KIFI Local News 8 in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Crane said he had retired, not resigned, from the school district.

In his only television interview after the announcement he said he did not agree with some of the educational philosophies in Idaho. He said while the decision to leave Blackfoot Schools may have seemed sudden, he has considered it for years.

“I didn’t just decide this yesterday,” he said in the television interview. “We’ve had very difficult times in Idaho.”

Many of those difficult times stem from an educational system that doesn’t seem to place emphasis on students, Crane continued in the interview

“That’s why sometimes I don’t agree with some of the things we do in Idaho. Because I don’t think it’s student centered. I think it’s political centered, or business centered,” Crane said in the KIFI Local News 8 television interview.

In an April 25, 2012 news article in the Post Register, Bobbie Steffensen, the co-president of the Blackfoot Education Association expressed regret at Crane’s decision to retire.

“I think it’s unfortunate the relationship between the board and administrators has been difficult lately. I think we’ve lost an advocate for education.” Steffensen said. Crane has kept up the tradition of “preserving a good working relationship between the administration and the employees of the district.”

Blackfoot school board chairman Scott Reese said the first open meeting violation occurred March 13 during an executive session called to discuss complaints about a board trustee allegedly misusing district traveling expenses.

During the meeting, Crane spontaneously announced his decision to leave his position and outlined a plan to do so, district attorney Dale Storer said.

The board’s second admitted violation occurred during an April 24 executive session called to discuss the hiring of a new superintendent. During that meeting, the board and Crane executed the separation agreement, Storer said.

Since neither executive session was called to discuss Crane’s separation agreement, it is a violation of open meeting law. The law states that a board in executive session must only discuss the topic it adjourned into executive session for. Any additional discussions violate the law.

“These discussions clearly went beyond the scope and purpose of the executive sessions … (and) these meetings did not comply with the open meeting law,” Storer said.

The open meeting law also requires violators to “cure” the infringement by making a public acknowledgment of the error and by “declaring that all actions taken at or resulting from the meeting in violation … (are) void.”

District 55 has yet to decide how to void the actions taken in the executive sessions.

Crane retired June 30, then days later the district made the first payment to an unnamed recipient. The second payment is scheduled for July 2013. As part of the separation deal, the board and Crane entered a separate nondisclosure agreement to hide the payout.

To ensure no one found out about the deal, the school board tried to hide the document in Crane’s personnel file, which is protected by state statute.

Nye rejected the notion the agreement should be withheld from public review simply because the board stashed it in Crane’s personnel file.

Attorney Jared Harris, who represented Bingham, said the documents released Monday vindicate the lawsuit and send a message about government accountability.

“When an entity is using public funds they should disclose the use of the public funds,” Harris said Monday. “The School Board hid its disclosure in every way possible. That’s not right.”

The board of trustees on Monday also admitted to breaking Idaho open meeting law twice while drafting the separation agreement. In its lawsuit, the Post Register’s attorney also raised concerns that the board had violated the state’s government sunshine laws.

“After consulting with our legal counsel, we find that we did err … and got into a discussion that we shouldn’t have had,” board Chairman Scott Reese told the Post Register.

Crane worked for the Blackfoot School District for 26 years. He was serving his fourth year as the superintendent when the Blackfoot School District renewed his contract for three years in January 2011.

According to a Feb. 2, 2011 Post-Register story, Mary Jo Marlow, vice chairwoman of the school board, said Crane’s fiscal management and academic innovation contributed to her vote to renew his contract at the board’s January 2011 meeting.

“Our history of fiscal responsibility has been going on for a long period of time, and I attribute that to his management,” she said.

The Grand County Board of Education stated that they “fully and unanimously support Dr. Crane” in a statement released Friday.

“The Board went through a very deliberative process that resulted in the ultimate selection of Dr. Crane as our district’s superintendent,” said the board statement. “The hiring committee recommended that Dr. Crane was the person for our school district, and on May 1, 2012, the voting members of the board agreed.”

Grand County School District business manager, Robert Farnsworth, said that the superintendent search committee spoke to both primary and secondary references.

“We spoke to teachers and people who knew and worked with Scott. We wanted a well-rounded perspective,” Farnsworth said. “We heard a lot of positive praise. No negatives.”

The information about his separation agreement was not available to the board during the hiring process.

“As we now know, the agreement between Blackfoot School District and Dr. Crane contained a non-disclosure provision,” the statement read. “Therefore, disclosure by Dr. Crane was and still is inappropriate.”

The board reiterated their support by saying, “the board has enjoyed working with Dr. Crane these past six months and believes that he is the right person for the job.”

Farnsworth expressed that he supports Crane as the superintendent.

“If you look at his performance for the last several months, it speaks for itself,” Farnsworth said. “I’ve really enjoyed this transition with Dr. Crane. He’s moving our organization in the right direction. I fully support him and feel he is the best person for the job at this time.”

Associated Press, Post Register and KIFI Local News 8 contributed to this story.

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