Tuacahn High board’s vote to release charter shifts question from ‘Why?’ to ‘What’s next?’

Screen capture of members of the Tuacahn High School community attending a special board meeting held via Zoom regarding the board relinquishing the school's charter and entering into the VSIP process, April 7, 2021 | Photo from Zoom meeting via Tuacahn High School YouTube, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — During a special meeting held Wednesday night, the Tuacahn High School for the Arts Board of Directors voted to release the school’s charter and enter the school into a Voluntary School Improvement Plan administered by the Utah State Charter School Board.

Tuacahn Center for the Arts and Tuacahn High School for the Arts Board Chair Jonathan Hafen at board meeting held via Zoom, April 7, 2021 | Photo from Zoom meeting via Tuacahn High School YouTube, St. George News

While the general consensus of those who spoke during the public comment section of the meeting seeemed to be that this would be a good thing for the school, questions remain about the feasibility of making it happen without disruption to school operations. And the big question many had when the school board chose not to renew Principal Dr. Drew William’s contact of “Why?” suddenly seems now to be a question of “What next?”

Tuacahn High Board Chair Jonathan Hafen said during the meeting, which was streamed on YouTube, that the choice to pursue the Voluntary School Improvement Plan, which requires a new board and new location for the high school, was in response to “concerns from the State Charter School Board and feedback received from the school community.”

“We have been working closely with the State Charter School Board team to determine the best resolution for our school community,” Hafen said.

“The roots of these issues are the shared spaces between the school and the Center for the Arts,” he continued, “as well as the organizational structure in which the school is part of a larger entity.”

Hafen was referring to accusations that there is a conflict of interests in having the same board govern both the Tuacahn High School for the Arts and the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. After the board announced they had chosen not to renew Williams’ contract, members of the Tuacahn community – including nearly 80 teachers, staff and parents – voiced their concerns to the high school board. Many of these concerns were also sent to the Utah State Charter School Board.

Those who spoke at the Jan. 22 meeting said that the Center for the Arts often pushed students out of the school’s performing spaces as itinerant companies were given permission to rent those spaces – or in some cases to use them free of charge.

In documents St. George News has since obtained from the Utah State Charter School Board, former Principal Dr. Drew Williams said that “at the expense of the students, we have always acquiesced space and time to TCA.”

“Currently, we only have access to the Hafen Theater (one of the school’s primary performance spaces) for 5 months out of the full year,” Williams said in an email addressed to the Tuacahn Board dated Feb. 17, 2021. “How does this benefit students, and create a dynamic, professional learning environment for them?”

That issue, along with questions of student safety and board conflicts of interest, drew the attention of the Utah State Charter School Board. As previously reported by St. George News, the state charter board subsequently sent a Notice of Concern to the Tuacahn High board highlighting six areas of concern that were to be addressed at an upcoming meeting of the state charter board.

Utah State Charter Board Executive Director Jennifer Lambert at Tuacahn High board meeting held via Zoom, April 7, 2021 | Photo from Zoom meeting via Tuacahn High School YouTube, St. George News

“We had concerns, which were going to be discussed at a meeting scheduled for April 15,” State Charter School Board Executive Director Jennifer Lambert told St. George News prior to Wednesday’s meeting. “But the current Tuacahn board has decided to give the charter over to the community. This seems like the best thing to do.”

Lambert said the Tuacahn Board deserves credit for their willingness to set their egos aside and submit to the school improvement plan process, as well as stepping aside to allow a new governing body to come together and move the school forward.

“That’s not an easy thing to do,” Lambert said. “We want to use this process more often, but it’s hard to find organizational leaders who are willing to enter into this process.”

Chelsea Bergeron, director and principal at Dixie Montessori Academy, as well as vice president of the Tuacahn booster club, spoke during the public comments and said the decision would be a boon to the school.

“The fact that the board is willing to go through the VSIP process shows that the board cares for the school and its students,” Bergeron said.

Some in attendance asked the board if the Center for the Arts would still offer students the opportunities to learn from professional actors even after the school had left the canyon. While the question wasn’t directly answered during the board meeting, Hafen said in an email to St. George News that they “look forward to working with them and other schools in a meaningful way to fulfill our educational mission.”

While most of those who commented said this is the right thing to do and were charitable in their assessment of the board’s actions, some expressed a little more ire.

“It feels like a slap in the face,” said Vicki Root, a parent whose daughter attends Tuacahn High School. “This doesn’t reflect my opinion. It feels like the Tuacahn board is trying to dump the school because they don’t want to deal with us anymore. Off you go, go find your way in the world.”

Root also expressed concerns that the process wouldn’t move quickly enough to ensure that students wouldn’t experience a disruption.

“If it’s going to be great, that’s a good thing,” Root said. “I don’t foresee how, in such a short period of time, it can get facilities up and running. I’d love to see that happen, but … right now, I’m very leery.”

Others who spoke Wednesday said they felt hope for the first time since the announcement of Williams’ termination in February. And some wondered how to hold everything together during the potential transition.

“How do we involve everyone that wants to be involved?” asked Amber Bain. “How do we ensure that all the willing staff and teachers will be retained?”

Tuacahn Center for the Arts and Tuacahn High School for the Arts board member Dave Pugsley at Tuacahn board meeting held via Zoom, April 7, 2021 | Photo from Zoom meeting via Tuacahn High School YouTube, St. George News

Tuacahn board member Dave Pugsley echoed this sentiment with a pointed question at the end of the meeting before the official vote:

“Is there a contingency plan?” Pugsley asked.

Lambert responded that if a board can come together to take over the Tuacahn High School charter, the Utah State Charter School Board would do whatever they could to prevent any further disruption to students.

Lambert acknowledged the difficulty of the situation for all involved, then added that she thinks “everyone on all sides of this are looking out for what’s best for students and what’s best for the school.”

“That’s why we want to move as fast as possible,” Lambert said during the meeting. “If all concerned parties want this to happen, we’ll find a way.”

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously in support of a resolution to pursue the Voluntary School Improvement Plan process. Lambert said the next step would be for the state charter board to approve the request, adding that she will be leading a training Tuesday for those interested in participating in the next phase of the school’s development.

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

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