The board that oversees Utah charters says it needs more power to intervene before a school fails

(Tribune file photo) Utah charter school students gather around a computer on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.

After a messy battle to close one charter earlier this year and with another filing for bankruptcy this week, members of the Utah State Charter School Board said Thursday that they lack the authority to do what clearly needs to be done — intervene before a school fails.

So they are now calling on state lawmakers to give them more power. “The main point would be that we’d have a lot more control than we do now," said Kristin Elinkowski, chairwoman of the state charter board, during its monthly meeting.

But others say the move is counterintuitive and unnecessary.

The board, an unelected group whose members are appointed by the governor, is a subsidiary panel under the Utah Board of Education. And that larger board has been questioning whether Utah charter schools lack sufficient oversight — particularly with financial accountability and the spending of taxpayer money — and formed a task force in August to specifically scrutinize the work done by the state charter board.

State education board members say the charter board already has enough authority to review accounts, raise concerns and report those to the bigger panel. But, they feel, it is too lax and chooses not to do so until it’s too late.

“We need to clean it up,” Mark Huntsman, chairman of the Utah Board of Education, has previously said. “We have some problems.”

The two boards have argued for years over who can regulate and control charters, including how to manage their money and potential closures.

The tensions have come to a head recently after the American International School of Utah, a charter in Murray, shut its doors this summer with more than $400,000 still owed in misspent special education funds and millions owed to other debtors. The state charter board didn’t take any action against AISU until last December — five years into its operation — and even then it was only a censure.

Members of the Utah Board of Education believe if the charter board was doing what it was supposed to, performing regular checks and analyzing school applications before they’re approved, it might not have gotten to that point. They say it doesn’t fulfill its current obligations, rarely enforces the punishment that it has control over (such as issuing warnings) and isn’t responsible for ensuring schools don’t fail — and more authority won’t help it do that. But it also might make it worse.

They are backed by a legislative audit from 2010 that criticized the state charter board for not stepping in when necessary.

But members of the state charter board say the list of what they can do is too short and that most of their early attempts to intervene can be undone by schools.

Member Cynthia Phillips said that if the charter school board votes to remove the director or principal of a charter, for instance, the school's own board can then "immediately change those actions, undermining the support we’re trying to give them."

She also said that charters often don't respond to requests from the board for records — because there's nothing in state law that requires them to — and members therefore have a hard time reviewing financial statements. (There is no authority for the charter board expressly granted in the Utah Constitution, unlike the Utah Board of Education.)

“We’re asking for potentially a whole bunch of tools for ourselves to get in the weeds and make some changes to get schools going in the right direction," she said. "Right now, we tend to be a reactionary board. But we need to be proactive."

Charter board members are requesting that the Legislature grant them authority that clarifies their role separate from the Utah Board of Education. They want more formal policies overall, a requirement that all charters be audited before they can be approved, and the ability to remove and replace a school director for up to a year.

“If we see the cliff coming and the executive director can take steps to remedy the problem but refuses, we can put somebody else in," said state charter board member Jim Moss. “Right now, this isn’t working. And we’re not going to wait until it implodes any more.”

They are also asking for more control over a school's assets and liabilities when a charter does have to close. That's been part of what's made AISU so difficult to close.

But the charter school board’s executive director, Jennifer Lambert, cautioned that not all of the requests are “in pure reaction to AISU.” She added: "That was a unique situation and we don’t want to react to just one case.”

It comes, though, as the charter board announced a bankruptcy filing from another school, Treeside Charter in Provo, and as members voted Thursday to put a third, St. George Academy, on probation. Next month, Capstone Classical Academy will appeal a recommendation for closure.

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.

St. George Academy had dipping enrollment and more than $200,000 owed in outstanding loans. The state charter board sent it a notice of concern in April and was supposed to close the school at its meeting Thursday. But members decided to give it another chance.

“Even with the most conservative estimate, we feel confident the school will not run out of money before the end of next year. Therefore, there is no need for immediate action," Lambert said. “We want to give the school an opportunity to increase their enrollment so they can have longterm viability.”

The southern Utah school, which educates students in eighth through 12th grades, has worked to lower its lease costs and sought donations from the community. On probation, it will be required to have at least 300 students enrolled next year and give monthly financial statements to the state charter board. The academy will also be required to remove one of its own board members who has conflicts of interest and helped finance the charter.

“We are happy to abide by the terms proposed," said Neil Walter, board president for St. George Academy board .

Elinkowski added at the end of the meeting that if the state charter board had more power, “it would be so much better earlier in the process” to help schools, like the academy.