Tuacahn High School community rallies for principal under threat of termination

ST. GEORGE — Dr. Drew Williams, principal at Tuacahn High School for the Arts (THSA), is used to attending a meeting each year in early March to determine whether he will continue to lead the school. He’s done so for four years now, and his contract has been renewed each time.

Tuacahn High School Principal Dr. Drew Williams in Ivins, Utah, Feb. 19, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

But this year is different. In a letter from the Tuacahn High School Board, the Board alleged that Williams said he intended to resign rather than proceeding with the Board meeting.

“He announced his resignation to our faculty at 3:15 p.m. the same day,” the letter said. “On the morning of February 12, 2021, Dr. Williams informed the Board that he had rescinded his resignation.”

The question is: Why?

Why would Williams, who told St. George News that he had no intention of resigning, tell the board he intended to resign? Moreover, why would the board want to replace him?

Both the THSA Board and Williams declined to comment. While the question remains, the process to determine whether Williams’s contract will be renewed is moving forward.

Tuacahn High School Student Body Co-Vice President Autumn Best (L) and President Gabriela Merida (R) in Ivins, Utah, Feb. 19, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

The community

When St. George News visited the THSA campus, everyone was talking about Williams’ situation and what it meant for their community.

“I’ve been teaching for 25 years,” said social studies teacher Kirk Howard. “Williams is hands-down the best principal I’ve ever worked with. He’s totally dedicated to these students and this school.”

Howard said that Tuacahn High School has improved exponentially each year since Williams joined them in 2016.

“Our ACT scores have improved,” Howard said. “Our students have all bought into Williams’s vision. Our faculty and staff have all bought into the mission. It’s crazy to think that we could be working for a new principal.”

In response to rumors that Principal Williams’s contract may be in jeopardy, Tuacahn High School students staged a boycott of the Tuacahn Cafe. Feb. 18, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Sophia Holt, St. George News

And, depending upon the results of the meeting, which has been scheduled for Monday at 6 p.m. via Zoom, faculty, staff and students may be working with a new principal.

“It’s all we’ve been talking about for three days,” said junior Hannah Lewis. “Principal Williams is the absolute best. He genuinely cares for every student on this campus. There’s no replicating him.”

Student Body President Gabriela Merida agreed.

“When I found out, I was shocked,” she told St. George News. “I didn’t think it could happen. Anybody who spends time here can see what he’s done for this school.”

Merida, in turn, did something for Williams. She created a petition to advocate for Williams to continue as THSA’s principal. After only 24 hours, the petition had over 800 signatures. As of this writing, the petition has been signed by 1,754 people.

“He advocates for us,” Merida said. “He fights for us. Whether it’s getting resources for students to create art, or to use the performance spaces on campus, Williams always has our backs. We’re the number one priority for him.”

Student Body co-Vice President Autumn Best said that Williams had contributed to her studies, as well as her development as an artist.

“I’ve never felt more respected by an adult,” Best told St. George News. “He’s the first to help us in almost any situation. I told him I wanted to read 18 books this year. He gave me a stack of books.”

Best said that without Williams, she doubts the school would be as successful as it has been since she began her studies there. That included a student winning a national arts award in December.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” said Best, who was recently accepted to the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts program at New York University. “Really, I think the school would fall apart without him.”

That’s why the students staged a peaceful protest during lunch Thursday, Best said.

“It was a boycott. We ordered 30 pizzas from Dominoes and had them delivered. This way, the café, whose profits benefit the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, would see how much we’re against what they’re doing.”

More questions than answers

Tuacahn High School guidance counselors Kami Adams and Jen Gates in Ivins, Utah, Feb. 19, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

As St. George News spoke with students, faculty and staff, the refrain was: Why? In the absence of a clear reason, counselors Jen Gates and Kami Adams suggested one in their letter, which was addressed to faculty and parents.

“We feel that Principal Williams’s contract renewal is in jeopardy because of a conflict of interests,” Gates said. “The Tuacahn Center for the Arts and the Tuacahn High School for the Arts should have separate boards, but they don’t.”

Though the boards have different names, they are mostly made up of the same group of people.

“Jonathan Hafen is Board Chair for both boards,” Gates said. “Sue Cox and Stacie Shurtliff are on both executive boards. Margaret Archibald, Andy Cox, Lew Cramer, Lisa Holm, Dave Pugsley, Rob Simmons and Vicky Wilson are on both boards. While the boards are different in name, they are the same in structure and function.”

Because of these allegations, Gates said, the THSA Board is currently being investigated by the Utah State Charter Board.

Adams echoed Gates’ concerns, and added another.

“What I don’t understand is how this board, which has almost no presence on our campus, can make such sweeping decisions that will affect our future,” Adams said.

The divide opens up space for confusion, said Christina Merrill, whose son attends THSA.

“The boards are so commingled, there’s no one to report to,” Merrill told St. George News. “We all want to know why this is happening. We’re all writing letters to the Board. But the emails get kicked back. They’ve taken their servers down.”

Merrill said that a call to pack the meeting has been undercut by the board’s decision to move the meeting online. The board’s letter said that the meeting was moved online to protect the safety of board members from threats of violence and COVID-19.

St. George News asked Hafen for comment. After declining, he responded with an email.

“I have determined as Chairman that conducting a meeting at an anchor location presents a substantial risk to the health and safety of those who may be present at the anchor location, based on the facts and circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hafen said.

Hafen did not mention the threat of violence in his email, and didn’t elaborate on who may have threatened whom, which led some community members to wonder if the threats were real.

“It feels like they’re spinning the truth,” Merrill said. “They can hold concerts at the Center for the Arts, but they can’t safely hold an in-person meeting? If they really wanted to hear what we’d have to say, they’d have us there.”

Tuacahn High School students’ production of Urinetown The Musical, Ivins, Utah, circa 2019 | Photo courtesy of Drew Williams, St. George News

Hafen declined to comment on why Williams’s contract may be in jeopardy, but Gates said that she believes it is.

“A few faculty members were invited to meet with two members of the board,” Gates said. “During these meetings, the idea was reinforced that Drew’s contract renewal was in jeopardy.”

“And we want to know why,” Adams added. “This is the first time since 2007 that everyone is on the same page. We’re all working together. This school is thriving.”

Until Friday, Williams said he would say little on the subject.

“I’m trying to listen more than I speak,” Williams told St. George News. “I’m trying to understand the situation. It’s important for me to hear the Board’s perspective.”

Williams said that this is the hardest thing he’s ever faced in his 17 years as an educator, but that wouldn’t stop him from fulfilling his mission to serve students, parents, faculty and staff.

I don’t understand why they’re considering such a drastic change now, especially as our worlds have been shaken up by COVID-19,” he said. “There are moments when I feel that it’s impossible to continue. But I’m trying to lean into the hard moments.

“Regardless of Monday’s outcome, these students, faculty and staff will get 100% of me. I’m still an educator. I’m still the principal of this school.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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