A Provo charter school acclaimed for its unusual academic approach of teaching kids lessons based on nature, yoga and “Love and Logic” has filed for bankruptcy less than three years after it opened.
Treeside Charter School submitted a federal claim Tuesday, outlining the nearly half a million dollars it owes to debtors. That includes an unpaid loan from the state for $180,000 and state property taxes for $87,000, according to accounts submitted to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Utah.
The school’s director, its founder and its board president did not return calls Wednesday or Thursday.
The charter has submitted a voluntary Chapter 11 filing, which means it intends to reorganize and pay its creditors over time. But its claim comes as the state is already questioning whether Utah charter schools lack sufficient oversight — particularly with financial accountability and the spending of taxpayer money — and as another charter recently closed with more than $400,000 still owed in misspent special education funds.
The director of the school spoke at a Utah State Charter School Board meeting Thursday. He reiterated that the board intends to reorganize — not close — and that all debts will be paid.
“Certainly, [the filing] happened very quickly," said Benjamin Johnson, who has been with Treeside for a year. "But our board is very proactive and taking care of our interests. ... This school and what it stands for will be here for a long time.”
Treeside’s school board President April Clawson added: “We had no choice but to do what we did.”
Treeside Charter, located just east of Utah Lake, opened in August 2017 and teaches kindergarten through sixth grade. It practices the Waldorf education model, focusing on the child as a whole and educating on core subjects through art, music, movement and the outdoors. Students are expected to study plants, practice mindfulness and start learning another language at age 6.
The hope is that by learning through “head, heart and hands,” kids will be more creative and confident.
“I want to change the face of education,” founder Dena Lundgreen told The Daily Herald in September 2017. “I don’t like trends. I don’t like getting on bandwagons and I don’t like boxes and I wanted to go back to what works.”
She left the charter in March to pursue other ventures and has been involved with starting schools for 15 years. Lundgreen said she wants to “preserve the beauties of childhood,” The Herald reported.
Treeside Charter has struggled, though, to gain footing academically. In its annual report card from the state issued last year, Treeside fell below almost every benchmark, including “developing” for test scores and in “critical needs” for both growth and the progress of its English language learners.
It had capacity when it opened for 530 students, but it now has 433, according to data from the Utah Board of Education. Nearly 20% of students transferred from Treeside in 2018 and 13.5% in 2019, noted an annual report from the state charter school board.
Kristin Elinkowski, president of the state charter school board, said during the board’s monthly meeting Thursday, “We have been aware of the circumstances of this.”
It had issued a notice of concern to Treeside about two months ago. Members of the charter’s school board read it aloud, in full, at their September meeting, according to audio and minutes.
The notice talked about fears from the state over financial viability, the cost of its facility and the setup and safety of its open campus. “If improvements are not made, SCSB will consider action to protect students,” it read.
One school board member responded: “We have tried to honor and use wisely state tax money. We are doing our best to mitigate what this letter says. As a result, we have some hard decisions to make.”
As of a September financial update, payments for the building space the school uses were consuming 25% of revenues, which is “unusually high.” It costs about $375,000 a year to lease.
The notice from the state charter school board noted that expense and suggested, “Paying such a high rate on the lease may not be a good use of taxpayer funds and takes away what should be going to students in the classroom.”
Treeside has been fighting with its landlord since its onset and is in the middle of trying to settle a lawsuit with the owners over lease disagreements and who has access to the property. That was filed this April.
Meanwhile, the financial update also noted that the school has seen an increase of $280,000 in expenses, lost an expected $200,000 based on low enrollment and has a resulting projected balance that’s in a deficit by about $300,000.
The Salt Lake Tribune reached out to the attorney representing Treeside in its bankruptcy filing but did not get a response. The school is contracted to pay the attorney another $50,000 on top of its existing debts.
The filings Tuesday outline that Treeside owes roughly $474,000 to its top 20 creditors, but there are others and it likely owes between $1 million and $10 million total.
Charter schools were meant to be education’s disrupters. But some in the community fear that they waste money and set up alternative programs that don’t educate students well.
The Utah Board of Education voted in August to form a task force to oversee the financial accountability of charters. The move was somewhat of a rebuke of the state charter school board, which it oversees, suggesting it is not adequately providing oversight.
The strong response also came in the middle of a chaotic process to shut down the American International School of Utah in Murray — which closed while still owing the state hundreds of thousands. The state charter board, though, didn’t censure AISU until last December — five years into its operation.
Unlike the Utah Board of Education, the state charter board is an unelected group whose members are appointed by the governor. The two boards have disagreed for years over who can regulate and control charters, including how to manage their money and potential closures.
With Treeside, for instance, the school was awarded a roughly $40,000 grant from the state during the last year under a “startup and implementation” program. It’s unclear how that money was spent, though.
And KUTV reported in June that the charter had to return a different grant for $43,000 from the Federal Communications Commission because of ethical conflicts.
State business documents show the school has lapsed on its renewal. It was considered “delinquent” as of Oct. 15.