A new task force will scrutinize Utah charter schools and their spending. Is it necessary?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kindergarten teacher Connie Orton reads to her students at John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. The Utah Board of Education questions whether all charter schools in Utah have sufficient oversight.

Questioning whether Utah charter schools lack oversight, the state Board of Education voted Thursday to create a task force that would examine the financial accountability of those institutions and better regulate how taxpayer money is spent by administrators.

“We need to clean it up,” said Mark Huntsman, chairman of the state board. “We have some problems.”

The strong response comes in the middle of a particularly messy and chaotic process to shut down the American International School of Utah in Murray. That charter is closing this fall with more than $400,000 still owed in misspent special education funds and is indebted to other creditors for millions of dollars.

But the move also is somewhat of a rebuke of the Utah State Charter School Board, which is supposed to provide oversight. The vote to form the task force — as well as the conversation during the regular Board of Education meeting Thursday — seemed to suggest that members don’t feel the state charter board is doing a good job of that.

The state charter board, for instance, didn’t censure AISU until December — five years into its operation.

“There have been some questions come up over a school closing with some real financial issues,” said Janet Cannon, vice chairwoman of the state Board of Education’s audit committee, which recommended the task force. “This would help alleviate anything like that happening again.”

Board member Carol Lear added: “I’m a little disappointed this idea didn’t come from the charter board.”

Who will serve on the task force and what exactly it will investigate is still somewhat undecided. But the main purpose is to examine how charter schools in the state can restructure their finances — including how they use restricted funds, such as the special education dollars AISU misused — and improve transparency and accountability in the face of “systemic risks.”

Part of this comes, too, after the state auditor’s office asked that all charters move to the same accounting system that public school districts use by fiscal 2021. Right now, there is no set or uniform system for charters.

Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the state charter board, said she hasn’t had much time to think about what the task force will mean for her organization.

“I’m still kind of digesting all of this,” she said after the vote. “But we would be happy to participate in it.”

The charter board is a subsidiary panel to the Utah Board of Education that oversees charter schools. It is an unelected group whose members are appointed by the governor and, unlike the state Board of Education, it has no power listed under the state constitution.

The two boards have squabbled for years over who can regulate and control charters, including how to manage their money and potential closures. But the primary question asked by members of the Utah Board of Education is: Why did no one step in sooner to help AISU?

“The benefit of having a task force is you have more stakeholders to make a really strong recommendation about what a proposed betterment would look like,” Huntsman said.

The issues with AISU, which officially closes Aug. 15, began almost as soon as the school was founded five years ago. Its executive director set up the charter as a unique public-private hybrid with students in kindergarten through 12th grade — free for Utah kids but requiring international attendees to pay tuition.

In the first three years, funds were severely mismanaged, according to the school’s previous spokesman. Now, most of the money it owes will likely not be paid back.

It also struggled to gain its footing academically. Last year, the state said it was below average in its test scores and graduation rates. Before that, in 2017, the charter received an F grade.

Both the founder, who later was removed from his post, and the succeeding director said they never received support from the state — either the state charter board or the Utah Board of Education — on what to do.

“They denied us resources," said Tasi Young, the last director before the school closed. ”They denied us help.”

Now, AISU has no school board — after members resigned en masse twice — and no director, after the charter school board fired Young. There’s also no liability insurance for the school, and it faces a lawsuit from the Utah attorney general’s office.

Charter schools were meant to be education’s disrupters. But Utah Board of Education member Linda Hansen said when they were set up, there was little specified in state code on how they should operate.

In 2010, a legislative audit slammed the state charter board for not regulating charter schools well enough. Changes were made about three years ago but, Hansen added in voting for the task force, “It’s probably time that we look at that again.”