IDAHO FALLS – Alan Reed runs a successful dairy business and popular ice cream empire. But in his spare time, he chairs one of Idaho’s most controversial public education committees. Professional and public service roles may seem like different worlds, but Reed sees parallels.
“You should deal with the FDA like I should,” he reminded a local charter school official recently embarrassed by his committee’s oversight role by the state.
Reed, third-generation owner of Reed’s Dairy, chairs the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, a committee that oversees 57 Idaho charters – nearly three-quarters of the state’s total of 75.
After turning the family dairy into a successful business decades ago, he plunged into educational leadership, serving for years as an administrator in the Idaho Falls School District before being appointed to the commission.
Today, Reed, who drives a black diesel van and wears Wranglers, has a say in whether or not taxpayer-funded schools are approved or closed.
It’s not always as simple as mixing cream with sugar, Reed admitted, and it can be much more political.
âIt’s a difficult balance,â he said.
From farm worker to businessman
Reed’s family dairy is on the outskirts of Idaho Falls, where his great-grandfather bought land in 1930.
Reed recently walked through a family history from his office on the same grounds. How her father and two uncles continued to run the dairy, selling cream to another local ice cream company. How he worked both in the dairy and on another nearby family farm growing up. How he was ready for a change by the time he graduated from high school.
Reed attended Ricks College – now BYU-Idaho – in nearby Rexburg but didn’t finish. Instead, he returned to the dairy and came up with a business proposition for his father and uncles.
Rather than selling the cream of the dairy to Farr Candy and Ice Cream Company across town, the dairy is expected to make its own ice cream, he said. âI saw a market for it pretty early on. “
The men accepted the idea and sent Reed back to school. He enrolled in the Food Science program at North Carolina State University in 1984.
But again, he didn’t graduate. Equipped with the information he thought he needed to create the best ice cream, he returned early to eastern Idaho and set out for the right mix of cream and sugar.
After six months of taste testing with family members and âthrowing in a lot of ice cream,â Reed’s Dairy Ice Cream was born.
The âotherâ family job
By 1985, Reed’s Dairy was making its own ice cream and morphing into a milking, bottling and selling business that would eventually ship specialty dairy products across the country and internationally.
But another family profession – and an expectation – had crept into the Reed house.
Reed’s wife, Holly, started working at a local elementary school in 1979 and landed her first teaching job in the Idaho Falls School District four years later. Her mother was also a teacher at the local elementary school.
Education was also part of the family, Holly Reed recently told Idaho EdNews.
Reed worked full time at the company and eventually became its president. But something else drew him in, and education was a driving force.
It was not an expectation, Reed said, recalling the various boards and committees his ancestors had served on, including his father’s seat on the National Potato Committee. But a sort of public service role has emerged.
âI didn’t want to be like that,â Reed said of his father’s previous engagements, âbut I had a desire to serve.â
He successfully ran in 1994 for a seat on the Idaho Falls School Board. He recalled the burning issue of this electoral cycle: sex education.
“It’s fun to see how the problems repeat themselves,” he said, referring to recent debates and controversies over a house bill aimed at requiring parents to sign permission cards for young people to learn about human sexuality in schools in Idaho.
From trustee to commissioner
Reed was a director of Idaho Falls until 2004, chairing the board for seven years.
Then the governor’s office called with a request. Would he be a member of the nascent seven-member state commission overseeing a growing number of public charter schools?
Reed admits that he didn’t know much about charters at the time, but “you don’t get a call from the governor’s office every day.”
âI took it as an honor,â he said.
Reed agreed and relied on his accounting and business background to “work schools on their budgets” and other potential financial issues the commission uncovered, he recalled.
Accountability is always a central point for the committee. But the level at which this occurs is a persistent source of debate when it comes to the commission’s charters, which call for renewal before the oversight body every five years.
Much of this process revolves around assessing a school’s student achievement and operational history, including issues of financial distress or possible misuse of public funds.
The commission can close charters that do not meet standards, but that does not happen. Since its inception in 2004, the oversight body has closed only one of its schools, although several have consistently failed to meet performance expectations and make ends meet financially.
Reed recalled that he had initially focused on asking schools about their finances, but said his focus changed when he became chairman of the commission in 2012, and that he was ” cornered âby concerned lobbyists and charter administrators who said some schools had grown up in fear and resentment towards the commission.
“I had no idea,” Reed recalled, adding that his vision of the commission’s role had shifted to a different consciousness “to help schools improve” without threatening to shut them down.
But in 2019, finding that balance between accountability and granting flexibility to schools reached a boiling point, and Reed reassessed his focus on the commission even more.
“You know I don’t like to be recorded”
âYou know I don’t like being recorded,â Reed joked during an interview for this story.
The planned comedic reference stems from a not-so-comedic spring 2019 event, which found Reed and his fellow Commissioners tottering after audio from a closed-door meeting became public.
On April 11, 2019, the commissioners and staff encounter for nearly two hours behind closed doors. The stated purpose of the meeting was legal, as the commissioners were to examine the confidential data of the students. But the discussion drifted and the group talked about shutting down some struggling charters and how to get lawmakers to join us.
The commission made critical remarks about JÃ©rÃ´me Heritage Academy, its administrator and the community. At one point, Reed expressed regret that the school had remained open. He later apologized and asked to meet with heritage officials, who declined.
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office concluded that the commission probably violated Idaho Law at the Curvy Reunion. Commissioners later admitted breaking the law and took one-on-one training from a Wasden MP.
Critics, who had long viewed the commission as a problem, rushed in. “The lights have come on” noted Idaho Charter School Families Coalition President Tom LeClaire, who told EdNews in 2019 that the meeting confirmed his suspicions about how the commission perceives some of its schools.
LeClaire’s group had become an ally and a voice for parents and students in certain charters in academic and financial difficulty. For LeClaire, the meeting was the last straw.
“It’s become a dead relationship, and that’s not what we want,” he said. noted amid the fallout.
Reed once again found himself reconsidering the balance between responsibility and flexibility.
“There is a problem, and rightly so, of confidence,” he said. says EdNews in the summer of 2019.
‘A wonderful thing’
Reed recently recalled the ordeal with a smile from his uncle’s former farm house, which now serves as office space for the family business.
A receptionist’s desk is located just inside the front door. An old kitchen table is now a conference table in Reed’s office down the hall.
But the botched meeting – and its backlash – further shaped his view of the charters and the purposes they serve.
He highlighted two recent graduation ceremonies he attended: one featuring students from a high performing charter and one for students from a low performing virtual charter.
âSome of these kids wouldn’t have graduated without online education,â he said of the online learner group. School may have difficulties, he added, but helping children achieve something they may not have is “a wonderful thing.”
Yet while LeClaire and others may fret over efforts to review the charters, other prominent leaders have questioned whether the commission is doing enough to hold some of its schools accountable for taxpayer investments – including its virtual schools, which struggle when it comes to student success.
“It’s their job” noted staunch charter advocate and Bluum CEO Terry Ryan, who called for a more in-depth look at struggling charters. In 2019, Ryan compared student scores on the classic spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” charters and suggested that continually struggling schools, including virtual schools, should close.
This did not happen under Reed’s watch, but other officials have expressed confidence in the commission’s approach. The Chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Lance Clow, told EdNews Reed he was a “dedicated” leader, especially when it came to charter schools.
Clow, who has known Reed for six years, said his committee had always relied on Reed and the commission for “truthful and truthful” information. (Senate Education Chairman Steven Thayne told EdNews he had nothing to add for the story and didn’t work much with Reed.)
From his farm office, Reed reiterated his goal of continuing to give struggling schools time to improve instead of shutting them down – a focus he will continue if allowed to.
“Another call from the governor to continue would be hard to refuse,” said Reed, whose term on the commission expires next year.