A longtime SLC charter school is in danger of closing. Here’s why.

The state charter school board and Salt Lake City School District have cited enrollment and financial concerns with the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts is located in the former Oquirrh School Building on 400 East, where it has signed a long-term lease it is struggling to afford.

When Carolyn Martinez-Ross’s child started high school at Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, they had one goal: to stay there for four years.

Her husband is an army veteran, she explained, which meant that her child had attended three elementary schools and two middle schools. At SPA, as the school is known, “we really thought we’d found the right place for them,” Martinez-Ross said.

But her SPA sophomore and many other students there may have to seek other options — as the public charter doesn’t currently have a required sponsor, and may be forced to close.

Salt Lake City School District, which has been SPA’s authorizing agency, notified the performing arts school in March that it is terminating that relationship and its charter, which is set to end in June.

Hoping for a new path forward under the Utah State Charter School Board, SPA’s leadership pleaded at a March 21 meeting for the board to take over its authorization.

SPA has lost almost $675,000 this school year between July 2023 and February 2024, and is projected to lose almost $950,000 by June, according to documents submitted to the charter board.

“I really do appreciate the distress that your school is in and I understand that factors that are out of your control have led you there,” board member Michelle Smith told SPA officials. “But I also hear some basic elements that to me sounds like financial irresponsibility.”

After almost two hours, charter board members took a vote on whether to give their staff time to do more research, ahead of deciding on April 11 whether to take on SPA.

That vote was a tie — which meant that process stopped.

Still, the board invited school leaders to submit a letter asking for help with developing a better business plan. “So we’re waiting now to hear back from them,” said SPA board secretary Kari Plaster, at a late March SPA town hall meeting, “to see if they’re going to allow us to have the opportunity to meet with them again.”

If SPA does not find a new sponsor by June, by state law, the school will have to close, said the state charter board’s executive director, Paul Kremer.

SPA did not fulfill its district deal

At the March 21 meeting, board members criticized the school district and were concerned that the state charter board would be “[salvaging] Salt Lake School District’s responsibility to do what’s right.”

But according to a letter from district business administrator Alan Kearsley, the termination of its authorization of SPA was set to end this school year, as discussed “over the past several years.”

Last school year, SPA announced to community members that it would be moving out of the former Rosslyn Heights Elementary, owned by the Salt Lake district, and into space at Westminster College, which would become its sponsor.

But that deal fell through, as both schools decided it would be too logistically difficult to house SPA’s students.

Kearsley also noted the district’s charter agreement with SPA had been contingent upon guaranteed enrollment of 275 students. “To date, SLSPA has never reached that enrollment guarantee,” Kearsley wrote.

The district’s 2023-24 enrollment reports said 164 students attended SPA as of Oct. 1, almost 40 students less than it had the previous school year.

The “primary reason” Salt Lake City School District had decided to become SPA’s charter, Kearsley noted, was “due to the integral relationship” between the charter and nearby Highland High School, where students attended their core academic courses.

But last year, the district declined to renew SPA’s lease at the former elementary building, which had high maintenance needs and had “reached the end of its life,” district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said. SPA moved downtown to the old Oquirrh School building, located on 350 S. 400 East, which means “the symbiotic relationship between Highland and SLSPA no longer exists,” Kearsley wrote.

The former Rosslyn Heights property is being converted to a sports space for Highland High School, which includes six tennis courts and one combined, artificial field for both soccer and lacrosse. It will also have a sports field building.

The letter also listed the district’s concerns with the school’s financial management.

State charter school board criticizes SPA

During the March board meeting, Plaster told members that the school signed a long-term lease at its new downtown location, “thinking that we would be able to arrive successfully at the end of the school year this year, and moving into the next 10 years.”

“In the meantime ... we knew our cash flow was going to be significantly deteriorating,” she said.

Smith asked why the school signed a long-term lease “for a building you know you can’t afford.” Doug Keefe, SPA’s board president, responded that the owners wouldn’t accept a short-term lease.

“That seems odd to me and I have trouble with that for a lot of reasons,” Smith said.

Board member Rabecca Cisneros questioned why it was only SPA out of the district’s three authorized charters that it wanted to terminate. “If everything about [SPA] was viable and sound and low risk, they wouldn’t be sitting here asking us, they would already be with someone else,” she said.

Salt Lake City School District also authorizes Open Classroom and Salt Lake Center for Science Education, or SLCSE. Kearsley told The Tribune the district still plans to authorize those two schools, especially since they are district-dependent charters. That means “their employees are our employees,” he said.

SPA is an independent charter school, he said, which means their employees are not on the district’s payroll.

SPA explores funding solutions, alternatives

At a January online town hall meeting, according to a recording provided to The Salt Lake Tribune by a parent, Plaster announced that the school knew at the beginning of the academic year that it needed to raise $500,000 “to be able to be successful.” By that meeting, leaders still needed to raise that amount. She added that school leaders recognized that they needed to push for more enrollment.

Plaster then announced a GoFundMe campaign and other fundraising and recruitment opportunities. At a late March town hall, officials said they had only raised around $80,000.

“That’s amazing in and of itself; I thought it would be higher than that, though,” Plaster said, adding that the school has reached out to foundations and banks. It was denied a $300,000 loan, she said, because lenders “can’t do an unsecured loan for a nonprofit that is a school.”

Martinez-Ross said she first heard about the money the school needed from the January town hall, and was shocked. “I cannot wrap my head around knowing that you have this $500,000 shortfall and waiting until second semester to say anything about it,” she said.

Plaster said at the March town hall that the school has been exploring other possible sponsors, such as Salt Lake Community College, which got approval to be an authorizer by its board in March. But SLCC is “not finished with that process yet,” she said.

The school originally set a cutoff date of April 1 to decide whether to close, she said, but that has been delayed by the possible opportunity to meet again with the charter board.

But she added, “If I were a parent that had a student going to SPA, I would go out and find an alternate school, and at least have the conversation with your student about that.”

Martinez-Ross said she’s concerned about the well-being of the school’s students, who she feels have different academic, artistic and emotional needs than traditional students — “especially if they’re blindsided with this at the last possible moment.”

But she and her family, she said, have already made their decision. Their sophomore will enroll at Highland High School this fall.