State board votes to close St. George Academy; school plans appeal

In this file photo, a student leads a group discussion in American Sign Language during a conference at St. George Academy, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 23, 2019. The Utah Charter School Board has voted to close the school. | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Utah Charter School Board voted Thursday to have the St. George Academy close its doors at the end of the school year in May. School officials say they were completely blindsided by the move.

The outside view of St. George Academy, a charter high school for students in grades 8-12, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Darren Edwards, St. George News

Although the state board has direct involvement in the fiscal health of charter schools, the decision to shutter the school’s doors came as a complete surprise, said academy Vice President Ellen Arch.

“We were completely unaware this was a possibility,” Arch added. “There was no communication at this meeting, despite us asking what the situation was.”

The academy is a public charter school authorized to teach grades 8-12 with a focus on college preparatory. The school opened in August 2017, and there are currently 249 students attending classes. As a tuition-free school, St. George Academy receives funding from the state based on its enrollment.

Arch believes the circumstances of a recent closure of another charter school that experienced long-term financial difficulties, the American International School of Utah, may have something to do with the vote to close the academy.

“We are not in that situation by any stretch of the imagination,” Arch said. “Our finances are in the black, but they just want us blacker. We are not in a perilous situation.”

“The state board’s action was sort of a preemptive kind of a thing, but it kind of felt heavy-handed,” she said.”Typically, they follow a process. Its usual goes from a letter of concern, then a warning, then probation before closure is ever considered. We’ve only received one letter of concern. We were never told in advance closure was a possibility.”

The board has granted the academy the opportunity to appeal the decision, which the academy’s board plans to accept.

In this file photo, a woman communicates in American Sign Language during “Silent Weekend” conference at St. George Academy, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 23, 2019. The Utah Charter School Board has voted to close the school. | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“We are going to fight this,” Arch said. “Without waiting for us to be in a situation of failure, without allowing us to figure it out, the state has decided on closure. We are going to do our best to beat this.”

During the appeal process, it will be business as usual, with graduation set for May 22, allowing enough time to mount a vigorous defense of keeping the school open for next year.

“The board is trying to be as conservative as possible,” Arch said. “We’ve been slowly growing and slowly improving our financial during the past two years. No matter what happens, we are going to be open through the end of this school year.”

The academy has 21 faculty and staff.

While the Utah Charter School Board did not immediately respond to St. George News’ repeated requests for comment Thursday, the board did issue a press release about the decision.

“As a board, it is our responsibility to weigh that with their ability to remain financially viable, self-sufficient and in compliance with state and federal guidelines,” board Chair Kristin Elinkowski said in the press release.

The board says it monitors authorized schools for fidelity to their charters and to general compliance standards through a process that is approved and monitored by Utah State Board of Education in accordance with statute. When schools fail to meet their charter agreements, or when they fail to comply with school board rule or legislative statute, the Utah Charter School Board can revoke charters or terminate schools that it has authorized, after due process as outlined in statute.

“All recommendations and determinations made by SCSB are based on each charter’s individual circumstances using standards outlined last year for all charter schools,” Elinkowski said.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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