Utah school board votes to close charter school that lost $1 million after 1 year in operation

A northern Utah charter school that lost more than $1 million last year — the first year it was open — has been ordered to shut its doors.

The State Charter School Board voted unanimously this week to close Capstone Classical Academy in Pleasant View after a nearly four-hour hearing Monday and a long line of parents and teachers pleading to keep it open. In the end, members said the school was financially mismanaged, enrolled too few students and “about to hit a brick wall at 100 miles an hour.”

“The school is in so many ways magnificent,” said charter school board member Cynthia Philips. “But I’m astounded by the bleak financial future. We have to balance the wonderful idea of these innovative, experimental schools with the reality of the fixed expenses to operate.”

The school can appeal the decision to the Utah Board of Education, which oversees the charter board and could reverse the order. If not, though, the academy will have to wrap up operations at the end of the school year in July.

Capstone, which teaches students in sixth through 12th grades, was founded by Susan Goers and opened in fall 2018. It focuses on a classical curriculum, including Latin, logic, philosophy and music for all kids. Many sat in the room Monday, wearing their uniforms and wiping their eyes at the decision to shut down the charter.

“It would be a tragedy for us to lose Capstone,” said parent Steve Hess, whose oldest daughter goes there. “They’re doing a lot of unique things.”

The school received its first notice of concern from the charter school board in June, outlining issues with having too few students on its rosters and spending too much money. It was also relying on deferred lease payments, surviving only on community donations and failing to file monthly budget reports, according to the letter.

The school got a notice of proposed termination in October after the board decided it had not made sufficient changes to turn the tide.

At the hearing Monday, board Executive Director Jennifer Lambert presented numbers on the school’s financial state. Last year, she said, the academy spent $3 million when it only had $2 million in revenue, leaving it in a massive deficit. Most of the spending was on the building lease, which Goers said they had renegotiated, but the school would still end the year with only $78,000 left to pay out teacher salaries. It’s not enough.

“That’s going to catch up to them,” Lambert said. “A school cannot operate on bare bones.”

The charter also had 186 students enrolled by this month. It’s break-even number is 260. And in February, it only had 106 kids.

When it applied for a charter, it expected to have more than 500 kids by the second year.

Goers countered that because the school is so new, “the momentum is just starting.” She pleaded with the board for another year to get its accounts in order and recruit more students. She said they’ve raised hundreds of thousands in donations recently, too — including $200,000 from just one person. They’ve also started social media campaigns.

“We have shown growth in the last two months,” she said.

She also noted the school has struggled to get students because of “the transportation nightmare” of having to cross Highway 89 in Weber County. But, Goers added, they’ve worked out a new busing route to resolve it by partnering with the Utah Transit Authority.

Music teacher David Strait said the programs offered at the school and the dedication of the students should be enough to keep it open. He suggested “the elephant in the room” was the chaotic closure of American International School of Utah this summer, which faced millions in debt and misused funds. But Capstone, he added, is not in a comparable situation.

“I think it’s really damaged the trust between charter schools and the overseeing body. But we really need to be on the same side,” he said.

Others recited lists of awards the students there have won and the national competitions they’ve been joined. Parents talked about how their kids weren’t getting enough attention at their standard neighborhood public schools. A few expressed fear at being able to find another charter to enroll in, with many in the surrounding Ogden area already full and having finished their lotteries.

“We found the local schools weren’t supportive,” said parent Bart Norman, whose son, Elijah, started at Capstone last year in 7th grade. “We searched for a school that would nurture our son. We found that at Capstone.”

He applauded the Socratic seminar model used there and that students meet with a mentor weekly to discuss goals. Nowhere else, he said, will do that.

The charter school board originally planned to shut down Capstone in January. But members said Monday that they’d extend that to the end of the school year to give parents and students and teachers more time to find new classrooms.

“It’s not an easy decision,” said the board’s vice chairwoman, DeLaina Tonks. “No one wants to see a school close. But the reality is there’s not enough money to get through the end of the year.”

The decision to close, Phillips added, was not a vote against the students’ accomplishments in science and debate or the school’s teachings. In fact, she said, closing down a school that is as good as Capstone is “a situation we’ve barely been in.”

Most of the charters the board votes to shutter, she said, have problems academically and financially. That was not the case here. But “despite good faith efforts being made,” she said, “I don’t see how they can be financially viable at all.”