Comparing his quest to a soap opera, an administrator at Provo-based Freedom Preparatory Academy poured out his frustration Thursday over trying to secure a place to house 75 students who will make up the charter school's new ninth-grade class this fall.
"I apologize," said Freedom business manager Chris Helvey to the State Charter School Board about his request for a venue change just three days before the start of the school year. "This is like a soap opera, 'Days of Our Lives.'"
Helvey told board members that school officials have felt "manhandled" by city officials, state legislators and neighborhood residents who petitioned to stop a high school from being built where the K-8 school is already located.
Freedom had planned to build a facility for high school students, starting with 9th-grade, on an eight-acre site at 1190 W. 900 North in Provo. School officials hoped to place temporary classrooms on the site this fall before construction of the high school began.
But that plan met sharp resistance from neighborhood residents, who feared an additional building would bring too much traffic.
Neighbors launched a petition drive on http://www.change.org, with nearly 200 residents signing on to express concerns that a high school which would eventually enroll 1,000 students, up from about 600 now attending the grade school would expose younger children to harmful behavior. The petition states that adding a high school would mean elementary schools students and other children who live in the neighborhood could be exposed to "possible assaults or molestation, bullying and exposure to inappropriate language and behavior" from teenagers.
Even Provo Mayor John Curtis voiced opposition, writing a letter to Freedom Academy in which he outlined objections to locating a high school on the same site.
"To have a school with well over 1,000 students and staff in a residential area on such a small site, where much of it is unbuildable, presents many life safety issues for Provo City," Curtis wrote in the letter.
"It is my impression that we have no idea the impacts this premature decision will create. While I recognize that state law gives Freedom Academy the ability to begin moving forward, I respectfully ask that you proceed in a manner that is not only consistent with state law but also in a way that considers how your decisions will impact the safety, quality of life, property values and well-being of hundreds of Provo residents."
Helvey said even though the school has purchased the land and can legally build a high school there, administrators have backed down in the face of neighborhood opposition and a request from Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. He suggested it would be "best" if the high school didn't operate in the neighborhood.
"We feel like we've been manhandled by some of the upper echelons of the state," Helvey said. "We feel blackmailed not being able to use our own property."
Helvey told charter board members the controversy has left the school scrambling to find a place to house ninth-graders this year. He asked the board that ninth-graders be allowed to spend a year in a building in the nearby Alpine School District while school officials figure out where to site the new high school in time for the 2013-14 school year.
The board approved the request but not without criticizing Freedom Academy's seemingly last-minute appeal.
"It's awfully quick to make this happen," said board member Robb Enger.
Although the charter board signed off on the change, the State Board of Education also must approve it. The State Board of Education doesn't meet again until September, so students could potentially start ninth grade at the Alpine facility, then have to move if the state board vetoes the change.
Helvey said he's optimistic the ninth-graders will be allowed to to stay in Alpine for a year and that school leaders will come up with a new plan for Freedom Academy's high school.
"We are good. We've been at this for 10 years," Helvey said.
O A Provo neighborhood launched a petition to keep Freedom Academy from building a high school on the same site as its K-8 school. Read the petition online.