Parents up in arms over potential closure of St. George Academy

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

ST. GEORGE — The parents of children attending St. George Academy are heartbroken by the Utah State Charter School Board’s recent decision to close the school.

As an academy parent and a member of its board, Matthew Smith-Lahrman said he believes strongly that the school offers a tremendous asset to the city of Washington.

“The academy hosts a multitude of children who, for a variety of reasons, struggle in the Washington County School District schools,” Smith-Lahrman said. “These kids come to the SGA and flourish. All of this happens amid a rigorous college-prep curriculum.”

The state board’s decision to close the school came with little warning or due process, Smith-Lahrman added.

Public charter schools are funded strictly through per-pupil enrollment. When the St. George Academy was created, a charter agreement was formed outlining the school’s goals to the state. According to Smith-Lahrman, the school’s charter set enrollment at 350 students by the third school year.

Currently, the school has 252 students.

Marion Wall leads a group discussion in American Sign Language during “Silent Weekend” conference at St. George Academy, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 23, 2019 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

The state board has credited the failure to meet the charter agreement enrollment figures as one of two issues that prompted the vote for closure. The other issue is the academy’s financial health.

Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the Utah Charter School Board, said through email correspondence that the school currently has 11 days of cash on hand and it is the state board’s policy to have 30 days of unrestricted cash on hand.

“While closing a school is very difficult, for all involved, it is better to have an orderly closure at the end of the school year than a financial crisis that may result in a failure of operations mid-year, bankruptcy or litigation,” Lambert wrote. “SGA’s enrollment is currently below the breakeven point and the school does not have the financial resources to sustain itself in the event enrollment does not increase substantially.”

Critics of the state’s action say the school has not been given enough time to build enrollment.

“The (state) school board’s desire for the SGA to have 300-plus students isn’t so far away in the future,” Smith-Lahrman said. “The board has nothing to say about the excellent learning environment provided at St. George Academy; the only problem is low enrollment.”

The school needs time to grow its roots into the Washington County community, Smith-Lahrman added.

“As our citizens see the great good the school is providing, they will send their kids its way and enrollment, along with revenues, will increase,” he said. “I am confident we will get the enrollment. It’s all about getting our name out into our community. For whatever reason, a lot of people don’t even know that we exist.”

The academy’s board voted Monday to appeal the decision for closure. The school has until Oct. 24 to make a formal request for a hearing. Once a formal request is submitted, a hearing will be held within 30 days. A request has not yet been received by the state board.

The school’s vice president, Ellen Arch, said the decision by the state was not about academics or governance, an important fact that was noted during the charter board’s public meeting Thursday.

The academy is in its third year of operation, and things are going great academically, Arch said.

“The school received accreditation in its first year of operation,” she added. “This is almost unheard of and provides a measure of teacher and academic program quality.”

Other bright spots include more than 90 percent of the school’s former students are attending college, and ACT scores are above the state average.

According to the Utah State Board of Education for the 2017-18 school year, 85 percent of eligible students scored an 18 or higher on the college entrance exam. Statewide, 63% of students scored as well.

Success is not just measured by academics alone, Arch said.

“Just as important is that our bullying rate of 1.7 percent compared to the state average of 22 percent,” she added.

The academy recently brought an in-house business manager to have direct oversight of the financials.

“There’s no replacement for having this information at your fingertips,” Arch said. “To date, we have not found evidence of any wrongdoing by our previous financial management company.”

The use of an outside business manager is common and not illegal, she added.

“The SGA board has been acutely aware of the financial issues we faced since day one,” Arch said. “This is evident from the board meeting minutes and recordings which are public information. SGA has done nothing illegal or even questionable with its finances.”

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

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