SALT LAKE CITY — Two charter schools will close permanently after the Utah State Charter School Board proposed last week to terminate the schools, which were put on probation early this year for budget, enrollment and academic problems.
Alianza Academy, a K-8 charter school in West Valley City and South Salt Lake, and the Wasatch Institute of Technology in Murray both decided not to appeal the board's proposal.
Between them, the two charters were set to enroll about 400 students this year. Alianza began classes Wednesday, and the bell will ring for the last time at 3 p.m. Friday. Wasatch Institute will not open Monday as originally scheduled.
Neither school will place students in other schools. That responsibility now lies with students and their families, many of whom will likely enroll in schools within their local districts as most other charters have already met their enrollment capacity, according Alianza board of trustees chairwoman Cindy Phillips.
Robert and Aileen Hampton said they've slept very little since receiving notice Wednesday night that Alianza would be closing. Now they're having to "scramble" to find somewhere else for their second-grade son and two kindergarteners to go to school.
"It's been kind of devastating," Aileen Hampton said. "These children, they're expecting to come to school, some of them have already started school, and now they're being told at the end of the week they can't come back. It's just horrible to see this community being destroyed on such incredibly short notice."
Jennee Vest, who has children in second, fifth and eighth grades at Alianza, said she was "not happy" when she heard the school will be closing its doors.
"This neighborhood needs this school so much," Vest said. "They're not normal children that go to this school. They all have different things that this school specializes in helping them. I'm really frustrated. I'm really emotional about it right now because I have so much to do and I don't know where I'm going to put them."
Road to closure
In December, administrators at the Utah State Office of Education contacted Alianza Academy over initial financial problems, requiring the school to pay back Title I and special education funds that were spent without proper documentation.
In March, Alianza and Wasatch were both placed on probation for failing to meet financial, performance and sustainability guidelines.
As part of its probation, Wasatch was ordered to meet six requirements, including transfer and retention benchmarks by the end of the fiscal year, which was June 30. Alianza's probation had nine terms, including paying back the undocumented funds, as well as meeting its own enrollment, transfer and retention rates by the end of June.
Members of the State Charter School Board met with school administrators in late July. By then, "little to no progress" had been made toward completing the probationary terms, and the board voted in its Aug. 13 meeting to advance a proposal for the schools' termination, according to chairman Howard Headlee.
Alianza, a school that reaches out to low-income and minority students, was set to enroll roughly 315 students this year, according to Phillips, who has been chairwoman for the school's board of trustees for about two weeks. Since word of the State Charter School Board's proposal, however, the school's enrollment dropped to about 270 students, below the 290 enrollment level needed to have a viable budget.
The state also withheld funding for teacher supplies and school trust lands funds from the schools in anticipation of the board's decision.
Alianza eventually repaid most of its Title I and special education funds, but doing so put the school in "a precarious financial situation," Headlee said.
In light of Alianza's worsening financial woes, school leaders decided not to appeal the State Charter School Board's proposal, though school leaders originally planned on appealing.
"I would have loved to have been able to go before the state and explain how we've already started to turn the school around so it can meet the objectives of a lovely charter," Phillips said. "If we didn't have 290 students, we couldn't present a viable budget for the coming year. This board, which is a responsible board, was not going to go before the state unless it had a very viable surplus budget for 2016."
Phillips said the school could have been financially viable had the State Charter School Board announced its proposal earlier, giving the school time to appeal the decision before enrollment dropped. In the end, it was a "difficult and heart-wrenching" decision to close the school, she said.
"We had to let more than 270 students down today and staff and their families because of the state's timing of their announcement," Phillips said.
Even if the school's enrollment hadn't dropped, there were other issues preventing it from continuing, according to Headlee.
"They did not meet the terms of their probation, and we took the next step, which is to propose termination," Headlee said. "Survival is not the standard when it comes to children's education. First and foremost, we are looking to find better ways to educate children. Financial survival of the school is not the standard."
School leaders at the Wasatch Institute of Technology decided to close the school last week because it was already "on the cusp" of not having enough students this year, according to business director Leif Nelson.
"It was best for us to take the high road," Nelson said.
The road ahead
Prior to Alianza's announcement Wednesday to close its doors, the Granite School District started seeing a "significant influx" of students signing up after the State Charter School Board announced its proposal to close the two charters, according to district spokesman Ben Horsley.
On Thursday, 30 additional students were enrolled in Lake Ridge Elementary, with another 35 students at Magna Elementary, according to Horsley. More are expected to enroll in Granite and other districts across the Wasatch Front after Alianza's last day.
It's a challenging transition because state dollars allocated through the weighted pupil unit are based on the previous school year's average daily membership counts and won't change for schools with large increases this year.
Schools, however, will get additional resources through full-time equivalent funding, which is generated from local, state and federal revenues and can be adjusted based on early student head counts, Horsley said.
An influx of students could also pose logistical problems for transportation and adequate school staffing, he said.
"If there are bus routes that now have more kids, we might have to add an additional bus," Horsley said. "The class size is just a big thing because if you suddenly have 30 new kids walking into a school building, that throws the dynamics off significantly."
Brian Babb, executive director of Alianza Academy, said teachers there will try to make Friday a memorable last day for their students as both adults and children prepare to leave the school for good.
"It's been spectacular to see the resilience of the teachers. I really feel like the state didn't understand what they were closing in terms of the professionalism and grit of our teachers. Can you imagine walking into a school and saying, 'Hey guys, good morning and you're all out of a job on Friday,'" Babb said.
"I'm so proud of our teachers who are all willing to stick it out and help the students have the best possible memories of Alianza," he said. "I'm just disappointed with what we are convinced is a lack of due process."
Contributing: Peter Samore