For years, private Utah schools associated with real estate developer Bob Jones and his family have courted controversy.
Teachers have left. Allegations have flown. Accreditation has been tenuous.
Now some of those old problems appear to be resurfacing.
"This is a highly unusual situation," said Georgia Loutensock, an accreditation specialist with the State Office of Education. "I've been over accreditation for 10 years, and this is the first one I've had like this, where the same deficiencies never seem to be resolved."
Three former teachers with The School of Autistic Healing and John Locke Academy, which are companion private schools, filed claims with the Utah Labor Commission this year alleging they were owed money, though one complaint has since been withdrawn.Two additional teachers employed by Jones last year also claim that Jones either didn't pay them fully or on time, despite the fact that Jones' payroll only consisted of about a half-dozen teachers.
Some former teachers also allege that not everyone on staff was qualified to teach a misstepthat could threaten the schools' accreditation, Loutensock said in a mid-August interview. She added that education officials were unclear on whether the schools had secured a permanent location to operate this year.
Jones, however, denies the claims against him. Allegations that the school hasn't fully paid employees are "not accurate," said Jones, who started working with Utah private schools about five years ago.
He said the schools have no debt and have solid accreditation. Jones said the schools have done wonderful things for the kids who have attended, including helping some attain college scholarships and letting low-income students attend for free.
"For four years we've been open and accredited and teaching kids with certified teachers," Jones said, "and doing good things."
Those who've taught at the schools, however, tell a different story.
A revolving staff • Former teacher Tyson Steed said at one point last school year, he was the only licensed teacher on staff.
That was partly because of the schools' high turnover. The schools, he said, had a staff of six teachers, and over the course of last school year four either left or were fired, he said, including the schools' only licensed special education teacher. Jones said that two teachers left during last school year, and he said a principal was fired.
"The kids are really the ones who are going to be suffering the most from that," Steed said, "because with new teachers constantly, they're not going to be learning as much if everything is changing all the time."
After the schools' special education teacher departed, Steed said he taught children with autism four periods a day without much special education training.
Former teacher Ryan Nelson had similar experiences. Nelson, a recent college graduate,said that he had hoped this past year to get his teaching license through the state's Alternative Route to Licensure (ARL) program, which allows participants to teach, under the guidance of a mentor teacher, as they work toward their teaching license.
But Nelson said he couldn't afford the program's fee and never actually enrolled. Regardless, he taught through the school year, including students with autism and a class of 5th-through-7th-graders that also included a 6- or 7-year-old child. Up until this school year, the schools had been for students in grades 7-12.
"Toward the end of the year, I was in survival mode," Nelson said.
The schools have already lost accreditation once partly because their teachers weren't properly licensed and endorsed and because the schools didn't have a permanent location, Loutensock said. But the schools reapplied for accreditation last year and, after providing a list of qualified staff and a lease for a long-term facility, regained it, she said.
The schools' accreditation, however, is provisional, meaning they must continue to fulfill certain requirements to maintain it.
Private high schools in Utah do not have to be accredited, but Loutensock said most are. Without accreditation, other high schools don't have to recognize credits earned by the students, and colleges don't have to recognize students' diplomas.
As of mid-August, Loutensock said the state's accreditation team hadn't been able to get a hold of anyone from the schools, had no list of current teachers or a location for the schools.
Jones denied that accreditation officials had any trouble reaching school officials, adding he recently spoke with one. Attempts to reach that official for comment were unsuccessful Friday.
The school's website lists The Hope Unlimited Community Church in Kearns as its location, but Anthony Roberts, the church's pastor, said the school will not return there in the fall. Jones declined to reveal whether the schools have a new location for this coming year, which is scheduled to start Sept. 10. The schools have relocated four times since 2008, a result of student enrollment growth, Jones said.
Payroll troubles • No one is listed on the school's website as a principal, director or administrator. Jones claims he doesn't run the school. He said he's only a volunteer who helps raise money, coaches, takes out the trash and helps transport kids.
On the school's website, http://autistichealing.org, a brief biography of Jones states: "When the lending markets were closed in 2007 and the real estate markets crashed, Bob and his partners lost all of their assets. Bob received a great deal of press related to those occurences (sic), none of it good, and as is the case for much of the media, not much of it true."
Jones' family members are listed as school leaders on tax forms. He referred specific questions about the schools' organizational structure to his sister Lora Sorensen, whom he identified as the current principal.
But when asked Thursday if the schools have teachers for the coming year, Sorensen said: "We have everything that we need. We just need people to butt out and quit printing lies."
She refused to answer additional questions, including whether the schools have secured a location for the coming school year.
Jones said the school expects 70 students this year.
Under the faculty section of The School of Autistic Healing's website, only two people are listed: Aliyah Hameen, an English teacher; and Jones, who's described as a volunteer sports coach.
Jones said that all but one of his former teachers have been paid. That teacher, Rob Fox, has not been fully paid because he won't agree to sign a statement stipulating that when he recieves his next payment he will have been fully compensated, Jones said. Fox said he doesn't believe he should have to sign anything to get what is owed to him.
Fox said Jones owes him about $1,400. Nelson said Jones still owes him $4,800. Steed said he's been fully paid, but "the paychecks were either late or nonexistent for a while."
Jones sent an e-mail to Nelson lastweek threatening to sue him unless he retracted the statements he made in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. Jones also asked Nelson to take back the claim he filed with the Labor Commission.
The school's tax returns from 2010, the most recent year available, show the school ended that year with a deficit of more than $10,000.
Jones said that most of the schools' students don't pay tuition, which is listed as $14,000 annually on the school's website. Many of the students are low-income and the schools solicit donations to help with operations.
In 2009, the Utah Division of Consumer Protection took action to strip Jones' former private school, Woodland Hills, which Jones renamed Utah Southvalley Community School (USC), of its ability to solicit donations. That school was already financially strapped when Jones acquired it in 2007, hoping to revive it partly through a new comprehensive sports program.
But USC closed in 2008, after revelations about Jones' troubled home-building business and complaints from USC teaching staff that they, too, were owed money.
Jones filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after amassing millions in debt from his real estate dealings and USC.
The School of Autistic Healing is registered with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, meaning it may legally solicit donations, at least until Oct. 1, at which point school officials may seek a renewal.
No state oversight • Though certain problems might be recurring, there's little state education officials can do about it.
In Utah, the state school board can take licensing action against private school teachers and deal with accreditation issues. But beyond that, private schools in Utah have much freedom, said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation at the State Office of Education.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, states have some rights to regulate private schools, but they do so to varying degrees. Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools, noted that the majority of private schools across the country are upstanding, accredited institutions.
Some of those closest to Jones' schools believe they are top-notch.
Kenyatta Ruai, who attended John Locke last school year, said the school made a huge difference in his life. The former high school dropout said the school's small class sizes and Jones' and the teachers' willingness to transport him to school each day helped him graduate. He said he's now planning to attend Southern Virginia University this school year with scholarships.
"I think the people who talk bad about it are just misinformed," Ruai said of the school.
And Georgiana Johansen, whose grandson has attended The School of Autistic Healing for two years, said the 13-year-old has flourished since enrolling.
"He was being bullied and teased and treated poorly at the public school he was going to," Johansen said. "There they don't allow it at all."
Johansen said the classes she's observed have been "excellent." She said she has a master's degree in education.
Steed acknowledged that Jones seems to genuinely care for the kids.
He and other teachers said the problem is how he manages the schools.
"I don't think this guy should be running schools," Fox said.
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