Records show Blackfoot school board tried to hide payout

BLACKFOOT, Idaho (AP) - The school board in Blackfoot agreed in April to a $210,000 contract buyout with the district's former superintendent then took steps to keep the payments secret, according to documents the district released under a court order Monday.

The 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.

Last week, 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 then-superintendent Scott 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 retired June 30, then days later the district made the first payment to an unnamed recipient. He is now working for the Grand County School District in Moab, Utah. 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 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.

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.

Reese offered a public apology for the violations and promised the board would undergo open meeting law training from the Idaho Attorney General's Office or the Bingham County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

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 14 days to decide how to void the actions taken in the executive sessions.