After board chooses not to renew principal’s contract, Tuacahn students stage walkout

ST. GEORGE — The morning after the Tuacahn High School for the Arts Board voted to put Principal Dr. Drew Williams on paid leave during a board meeting held via Zoom, pending a separation agreement, students staged a walkout. At 8:30 a.m., so many students had gathered that the office decided not to take attendance. Gabriela Merida, the student body president, called the walkout a peaceful protest.

A group of Tuacahn High School students, with Gabriela Merida in the center, protest the Tuacahn High School Board’s decision to place Principal Dr. Drew Williams on paid leave, in Ivins, Utah, Mar. 2, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“We’re protesting the board’s decision to not renew our principal’s contract,” Merida told St. George News. “We weren’t given any valid reasons, and the board has not been transparent with us.”

Even after the board’s vote, and a statement from board Chairman, Jonathan Hafen, questions remained.

“I’m very sorry to see the situation come down to a vote against renewing Dr. Williams’ contract,” said school board member Vicky Wilson during the board meeting via Zoom. “I’m concerned that more due diligence and process should be afforded to Dr. Williams. I share the concerns conveyed by the faculty, students and parents that not enough information has been shared about the reason for not renewing Dr. Williams’ contract.”

In his statement, Hafen said that there are several reasons the board had voted against renewing Dr. Williams’ contract, “due to matters of character and professional competence.”

A group of Tuacahn High School students protest the Tuacahn High School Board’s decision to place Principal Dr. Drew Williams on paid leave, in Ivins, Utah, Mar. 2, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“I know that many of you want to know what those reasons are, but we respect and protect the privacy of our staff when making personnel decisions and will not publicly discuss those reasons,” Hafen said. “I hope you can understand why that makes good sense for all involved.”

Hafen then added a bit more of his perspective on the situation.

“First, some members of the board are very concerned about the 2021 school year drop in enrollment and the long-term enrollment trend,” he said. “During our last meeting, there were comments made suggesting that the school has been experiencing a positive enrollment trend. Respectfully, that is not correct. Enrollment at Tuacahn High Shool for the Arts is the lowest it has been in nearly a decade, while the St. George area is one of the fastest growing in the nation.”

Hafen said that Washington County School District enrollment had increased 30% over the past eight years, and Vista School — the closest charter elementary and middle school which also focuses on Arts — had seen enrollment up 29% over the same period.

But during the previous meeting, held Feb. 22 via a Zoom board meeting that was published on the Tuacahn High School YouTube channel, Tuacahn Dean of Students Chris Andrus painted a different picture.

A group of Tuacahn High School students staged a walkout to protest the Tuacahn High School Board’s decision to place Principal Dr. Drew Williams on paid leave, Ivins, Utah, Mar. 2, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“In the four years that I’ve tracked the data,” Andrus said, “this kind of positive enrollment trend has never existed. Numbers have always been in the negative.”

Andrus also asked the board how they would address “the possibility of student enrollment and staff retention plummeting in reaction to the possible termination of Dr. Williams’ contract.”

St. George News reached out to Andrus for comment, but none had been given at the time of publication.

“The 2021 fiscal year enrollment drop at THS is estimated to have impacted its budget by $270,000,” Hafen said. “Some members of the board are also very concerned about the long run financial viability of THS unless there are significant changes in operations and local school relationships that will significantly improve enrollment. Because some of those operational changes need to be made immediately, we believe it is necessary to bring a new principal to the school now.”

The board chose Vista Vice Principal Kelly Geary to serve as Tuacahn’s interim principal until they find a replacement for Williams.

This gave Wilson pause, as she expressed a concern held among many parents, staff and faculty that the Tuacahn school board, which shares most of its membership with the Tuacahn Center for the Arts Board, needed an independent board.

A group of Tuacahn High School students staged a walkout to protest the Tuacahn High School Board’s decision to place Principal Dr. Drew Williams on paid leave, in Ivins, Utah, Mar. 2, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“I share the concern that these actions today will do much damage to THSA,” she said. “Further investigation and consideration (are needed) due to the far-reaching impact on every student parent, faculty and board member at THSA.”

Hafen conceded that the arts board had not been “perfect in its interactions with THS.”

“As a board, we understand the importance of a good relationship with our biggest financial supporter, which has contributed millions of dollars over the years to help ensure the success of the school,” Hafen said, referring to arts board’s fiscal support of the high school.

If that sounds confusing, consider that it may be because Hafen chairs both boards. During the Feb. 22 meeting, Tuacahn High School guidance counselor Kami Adams said that, in the absence of a reason for terminating Williams’ contract, she saw a flaw emerge.

“At its heart, I see a dire conflict of interest in the relationship between THSA and TCA and the boards that direct them,” Adams said. “While on paper we have two boards, I fear the distinction is in name only. Drastic measures are being considered from a board that has little presence on our campus.”

Because of these allegations, Tuacahn’s school board is currently under investigation by the Utah State Charter School Board. When St. George News reached out to the Utah State Board of Charter Schools for comment, Director Jennifer Lambert said that, while she could not go into specifics, a complaint had been made against the school board.

“They are currently under what we call ‘review and research,'” Lambert told St. George News.

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

For his part, Williams declined to comment. Instead, he offered a quote from one of his heroes, Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED Talk has garnered over 70 million views.

“Robinson said that ‘For most of us the problem isn’t that we aim too high and fail,” Williams said. “‘It’s the opposite. We aim too low and succeed.’ We’ve aimed high for the past several years without fear of failure. It is precisely through that failure that we have risen.”

Williams likened the fruits of his labors, whether it’s improved ACT scores, relationships with community partners, or students getting accepted to top-tier universities, to a garden.

“These things happen when the garden is healthy, and producing good fruit,” Williams said. “A reflection of love, support and a constant desire to impact the world around us for good.”

A member of the Tuacahn faculty, who asked not to be identified, said that teachers are in a tough place.

“We feel as though our jobs are in jeopardy,” the faculty member said. “We don’t know who the new principal is, or why they chose her.”

The faculty member said board still hadn’t given a reason as to why Williams had been put on paid leave. The faculty member dismissed Hafen’s remarks about enrollment as untrue.

“They’re grasping,” the faculty member said. “It’s scary, because we still don’t know what they’re talking about. So, it feels like Williams asked the wrong questions of the wrong people, and now he’s being removed.”

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

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