PLEASANT VIEW — Capstone Classical Academy, a charter school in its second year of operation, is one step closer to closing.
The Utah State Charter School Board (SCSB) voted unanimously to close the school at the end of the school year after a hearing held Monday morning.
The potential closure is due to the school’s financial difficulties, which are rooted in the school’s lower than expected enrollment. The school is currently relying on fundraising to stay open.
At the hearing, no board members criticized the quality of education the school provides, which is a unique blend of Finnish teaching methods with an emphasis on classical texts. In fact, board members praised the school.
“In a perfect world, I would want this school to stay open forever,” said board member Cynthia Phillips. “Whatever decision we make today, and I can think of a variety ... we all recognize what a fine school this is and wish that we ourselves were allocated money to save schools, which we aren’t .... and that would include your school because of your excellence ... beyond this worrisome financial picture.”
Vice Chair DeLaina Tonks and board member Jim Moss shared similar sentiments.
Several members said they wanted the chance to reevaluate the decision if the school’s financial prospects improve.
According to Assistant Attorney General David Jones, who was in attendance at the hearing, the SCSB does have this option.
“In general, boards can reconsider their decisions,” Jones told board members. “There’s nothing that prohibits it at this stage.”
However, Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the SCSB, also told the board that reversing a decision like this would be unusual.
Capstone still has the option to appeal the SCSB’s decision to the Utah State Board of Education (USBE), though the school has exhausted its formal appeal options with the SCSB.
This mid-year vote on the school’s closure allows the school time to go through the appeal process with USBE, Lambert said.
“At some point, peeling off a bandaid slow is more painful,” Lambert said.
Dr. Susan Goers, the director of Capstone Classical Academy, said that the school will be submitting an appeal to USBE because the school only has a 14-day window to do so, but she’s confident the school can show enough improvement over the coming months to satisfy the concerns of the SCSB.
The school is well on its way to raising $300,000, which will help the school stay afloat financially until it can boost its enrollment, Goers said.
School leadership have worked with their developer and landlord, Highmark School Development, to lower the monthly cost of their lease. The discounted amount will be added on to the back end of their lease, Goers said.
However, the school wouldn’t have the need for such significant fundraising if it had met its projected enrollment, because funding for charter schools is contingent upon enrollment, according to several board members at the SCSB meeting on Oct. 10.
The school will continue to be in a precarious financial situation if it can’t boost enrollment.
There were 177 students enrolled at Capstone on Oct. 10, with 15 new students joining the school since then, Goers said.
The school’s break-even enrollment is 260 students, but enrollment is difficult to boost significantly mid-year.
“Our push is going to be enrollment,” Goers said. The school’s goal is to “grow by 30-50 students before the end of February, beginning of March, at which point I will ask the charter board to hear us out.”
“Our preference is that (the SCSB) give us (an enrollment) number, and say ‘You need to have this by Aug. 1,’” Goers continued. “We totally understand where the charter board is coming from ... but we need time to get our momentum, and our momentum is just starting now, so we need time for that to grow. So that’s what we’re asking for — time.”
Goers thinks one of the school’s challenges is its location. In some ways the location is ideal, located on Highway 89 in Pleasant View between Brigham City and Ogden — a “black hole” where not many charter schools are located, Goers said, and a great location for commuters to drop of their kids on their way to work in the Ogden area.
But it’s in an industrial area, and the building blends in. People may not realize that it’s a school.
“The problem ... is that (people) don’t know we’re here,” Goers said.
The location is also a big factor because there aren’t sidewalks along Highway 89, so the school is not walkable. School leadership are working on transportation solutions, Goers said, so that Capstone is more accessible to the five neighborhoods that surround the school.
Beyond enrollment, the SCSB is concerned that the school’s lack of funds will lead it to use restricted funds for undesignated purposes, according to board discussion at the hearing.
The American International School of Utah misused restricted funds before its closure earlier this year, according to reporting from The Salt Lake Tribune.
“Historically, when schools are desperate, they have a tendency to reach into those funds,” Phillips said at the hearing. “That is something that we as a board have to consider when we see a school running out of money.”
“I know this is a very difficult decision,” said Kristin Elinkowski, chair of the SCSB, after the vote to close the school. “Thank you all for being here. I hope you can understand the difficult position our board was in and under the circumstances feel like we made the right choice.”