The first sign something was off at Innovations Early College High School came last fall, when a bill for $30,000 arrived at the Salt Lake City School District offices.

The invoice was from Salt Lake Community College, seeking tuition payments for Innovations students who had enrolled in SLCC courses over the summer months — an expense that is not traditionally covered by the school district.

“They were going to school,” said Alexa Cunningham, Salt Lake City superintendent. “They were attending SLCC.”

Grover was both Innovations principal and director of districtwide career and technical education programs, or CTE. Upon further investigation of the SLCC invoice, Cunningham said, administrators learned that Innovations had been using district cash to pay for its own students to attend on-campus college courses, tuition-free, without formal approval.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Ex-principal Ken Grover shows the atrium area of Innovations Early College High School, at 1700 South and State Street, as seen when the school was opening in 2012. Polices at the hybrid high school are under review over alleged improprieties in how Grover, who also headed the district's career and training services, spent districtwide funds for the benefit of Innovations High students.

Cunningham said that approach has to end.

“If Innovations wants to continue to use their budget to support that, that’s their choice,” she said. “But the money that we get back for concurrent enrollment needs to be spread throughout the district.”

Grover said the confusion and abrupt policy shift stem from a difference of opinion on the math behind the school’s model.

The previous superintendent signed off on Innovations’ spending, he said, but something fell through the cracks with a loss of institutional knowledge when Cunningham was hired from out of state in 2016 to run the school district and set up a new administrative team.

“They’re new and trying to understand Utah concurrent enrollment,” Grover said. “They didn’t really understand how the funding worked.”

Approved or not, parents and students accustomed to attending SLCC for free are now being told that the costs of getting that early college credit — potentially hundreds of dollars each year — will be coming out of their own pockets.

“They simply said that the school could no longer afford it,” said Tim Phillips, vice chairman of Innovations’ School Community Council. “We’ve been getting some conflicting messages on who has made that decision.”

Where credit is due

Innovations opened in 2012 as part of a districtwide Career and Technical Education (CTE) Center, which is in turn attached to the SLCC campus on State Street.

Rather than traditional classrooms, Innovations offers a few computer labs where roughly 400 students work at their own pace overseen by a bare-bones staff of teaching mentors. Students are encouraged to participate in concurrent enrollment, a program that lets kids fulfill high school and college requirements simultaneously.

But where those courses are traditionally taught at high schools by college-certified teachers, Innovations’ proximity to SLCC allows students access to the community college to earn those credits.

“We want to break down all the barriers,” Grover said. “Since we’re connected to that campus, it’s easy for students to walk down the hallway and take classes.”

Concurrent enrollment is limited to core subjects such as math, English, science and a few electives. Beyond those subjects, standard enrollment is required to earn early college credits.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City.

“With early enrollment, a kid can do anything that we offer on our campus,” said Brandon Kowallis, SLCC’s concurrent enrollment director, “but they’re paying full tuition to do that.”

The cost for concurrent credits is far less, with a one-time registration fee of $40, along with a per-credit charge of between $5 and $15, depending on a student’s income level, Kowallis said. With early enrollment, by contrast, standard tuition is $507 for a three-credit course, and $668 for four credits.

Kowallis said Innovations takes part in what is called Concurrent on Campus. That format is used by some charter schools, he said, to send students to SLCC because they lack the student body to justify hiring extra teachers.

Salt Lake Community College is now looking at imposing limits on the number of credits a high school student can take each semester, Kowallis said. The idea is to encourage more strategic selection of college credits, he said — and to avoid the potential that a school simply offloads its student body onto a college or university campus.

“This could be a very lucrative endeavor for a charter school,” he said. “They never see their kids in class, they never see their kids in school, and yet they collect a check from the state.”

To some extent, a version of Kowallis’ scenario was at the root of how Grover structured Innovations Early College High School.

‘Split the invoice’

Public schools are funded through the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, a budget tool that in Utah translates to roughly $3,300 in state cash for each enrolled student. That funding is then supplemented at the local district level through property taxes.

Innovations gets only WPU funding from the state for its operations, with the Salt Lake City School District covering maintenance and other capital costs for the CTE Center that also houses the school.

But because Innovations students spend so much time at the community college, the portion of WPU funding that would otherwise be used to hire teachers and run the school can be used to pay SLCC tuition, Grover argues.

“The district pushed back and said we don’t have the money,” he said. “These children generate $150,000 and are only costing $75,000.”

Grover said he would “split the invoice” from SLCC, paying Innovations’ concurrent enrollment fees with district cash and early enrollment tuition with the school’s WPU money from the state.

Innovations’ administrators deemed it appropriate for Innovations to dip into district cash for that expense, Grover said, because its students generated the lion’s share of the district’s concurrent enrollment credits.

But it also resulted from Grover wearing two hats. He wasn’t just the principal of Innovations. He was also the district’s CTE director, which meant he was in a position to access the district’s full concurrent enrollment budget with little oversight, Cunningham said.

“That was a budget [Grover] managed and there wasn’t a red flag until this last summer when we got the large bill,” Cunningham said. “We’re going to have a standalone CTE director and a standalone administrator at Innovations. They’re not going to be the same person [anymore].”

And Grover’s claim that a new superintendent contributed to the misunderstanding is belied by Heather Bennett, president of the Salt Lake City School District school board, who has served on the board since Innovations’ creation.

She said Innovations was launched without the knowledge or approval of board members and that she learned of its existence after flyers for the new school showed up in her neighborhood.

“I certainly did not know that they were offering free college tuition to everybody,” Bennett said. “We will have paid almost $100,000 to the community college [this year]. That’s a big difference from any of the funding models that I would have expected.”

Policy shift

Phillips, the school community council vice chairman, said parents have received some assurances since the initial announcement that their students’ college fees would no longer be covered.

The school is working with SLCC to set up a scholarship program for district-sanctioned concurrent enrollment, he said, but parents will be expected to find their own way of paying for early enrollment beyond those core subject classes.

“The early enrollment is not so crucial,” he said. “This was affecting maybe 10 kids a year.”

Phillips argues that there was a trade-off when students chose to enroll at Innovations. They could attend college for free, but they also didn’t experience the electives and extracurricular activities available at a more typical Utah high school.

“There is so much more at the other high school that we do not offer at Innovations,” he said.

Cunningham, the Salt Lake City superintendent, said Innovations students always have the option of attending electives at more traditional high schools nearby, with frequent shuttles daily to move students between campuses.

But conversely, she notes, a student enrolled at a traditional school doesn’t have the perk of free college credits.

She said Innovations had committed to paying concurrent and early enrollment and the district will hold to that for the current academic year. But the incident has sparked a wider examination of district policy.

“We are looking at clearly defining what concurrent enrollment means and is to all of our campuses,” Cunningham said. “We have to make sure that we are truly paying for concurrent enrollment, not just for students taking classes.”

Phillips said the shift is unfortunate for current freshman and sophomore students at Innovations, who enrolled based on the free college pitch, as well as for future students at the school.

“I want every kid who comes through those doors to have the same opportunities my daughter has had,” he said. “I frankly feel that district leadership doesn’t fully understand or appreciate the magic that’s happening within Innovations’ walls.”