Islamic links to Utah's Beehive Academy probed

Published: Tuesday, June 1 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Students at the Beehive Academy walk out of classes May 6 to protest the decision to shut down their school.

August Miller, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — By all appearances, it was a half-hearted attempt at a school protest. About 50 students huddled together, looking uncomfortable as they nervously debated, in hushed tones, just how far from Beehive Science & Technology Academy they could walk without attracting a ticket to detention. Reporters (those who had bothered to show up) stood back, hands on hips, skepticism apparent in their raised eyebrows. Cameramen threw up their hands: Students hadn't even painted posters.

At 5 p.m., a Salt Lake City newscaster in a pin-striped suit gave a perfectly inflected, 39-second overview of the facts accompanied by nondescript footage of shuffling tennis shoes. Parents and students were upset with the State Office of Education's April 29 decision to shut down the financially struggling charter school, he said. A teacher had been put on administrative leave for allegedly trying to organize a new school.

And with that, the media — and the community — moved on. But that doesn't begin to describe what's going on inside the unremarkable, gray office building at 1011 Murray-Holladay Road. The school is $300,000 in the red, yet, teachers say, the geography class is without maps, the computer labs are stocked full of second-hand equipment and the school can't afford a janitor. The administration's unusual approach to education has driven many to question: what is the school spending its money on?

In the days since the state voted to revoke Beehive's charter, the Deseret News has scoured hundreds of pages of public records and interviewed dozens of people inside the Salt Lake City school. The emerging facts paint a troubling picture:

E-mail exchanges between teachers and administrators document a lack of transparency in administrative decisions, raising questions about the school's autonomy.

In a time of teacher layoffs, Beehive has recruited a high percentage of teachers from overseas, mainly Turkey. Many of these teachers had little or no teaching experience before they came to the United States. Some of them are still not certified to teach in Utah.

The school spent more than $53,000 on immigration fees for foreigners in five years. During the same time, administrators spent less than $100,000 on textbooks, according to state records.

Critics point to Beehive as an illustration of a bigger problem within the Utah charter school system. While Beehive is the only charter school the government has forcefully shut down, it is not the only charter school to mismanage taxpayer dollars. Just this past month, Salt Lake parents picketed in front of Dual Immersion Academy, calling for a business administrator with no finance background to step down. The bank is so bare, administrators can't afford to buy toilet paper. Merit Academy in Springville poured money it didn't have into a big facility that now operates at half capacity. In Spanish Fork, administrators at American Leadership Academy have been accused of paying employees under the table and tampering with student transcripts.

In many ways, however, Beehive is unique. Beehive's financial problems came to the board's attention in July 2009 when a former school board member accused the school of having clandestine ties to a controversial Muslim preacher. After a six-month investigation, the State Charter School Board officially declared any association with Islam "circumstantial" and cleared the school of pushing religion. Now, however, as Beehive prepares to appeal the school's closure, nearly a dozen teachers and parents have come forward with new evidence linking the school to a powerful Islamic movement unknown to many Americans.

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