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Questions raised about how Washington County charter school is managed

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Questions raised about how Washington County charter school is managed (KUTV)

Tuacahn Center for the Arts, known for its impressive amphitheater and its renowned "Broadway In the Desert" series, also runs Tuacahn High School for the Arts, a charter high school.

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Student Body President Gabriela Merida said students are told the two entities are equal, but she said it’s the arts center that regularly gets top priority.

She said recently the dance students were told, without warning, that the arts center had rented their studio to a professional production, and that students would not have access to it for the rest of the year.

None of us knew that was happening until that point, so now they don’t have anywhere to rehearse,” Merida said. "It completely derails us."

She said these derailments happen regularly, even though the school pays tens of thousands of dollars a month in maintenance fees and rent to use the spaces and the school. Beyond The Books uncovered the school’s lease agreement between the arts center and the high school. The school pays $35,000 a month for maintenance and rent — almost 7% of the school's $6,900,000 budget — all of it taxpayer-funded.

In addition, the lease agreement allows the arts center to keep the majority of the profits from renting out the spaces it regularly kicks students out of.

"They’re actively renting out these spaces while we are renting them out," Merida said.

Why do the leaders of the school allow this seemingly unfair agreement to continue?

It turns out the board who runs the arts center also runs the school. Nearly every member of the board, with the exception of one, makes up both boards. Merida said no one is looking out for the interests of the school.

We think that presents a conflict of interest because more times than not, the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, is the priority and Tuacahn High School gets left behind,” she said.

This lopsided arrangement has sparked the interest of the Utah State Charter School Board, which issued a stern letter to the school and is demanding Tuacahn leaders fix all the problems. The charter school board is also demanding the Tuacahn officials answer questions at the charter board’s next meeting in April. If Tuacahn doesn’t correct the issues, the school could face disciplinary action.

The head of Tuacahn Center for the Arts, Jonathan Hafen issued this statement:

We have worked to investigate and respond as quickly and responsibly as possible since receiving a notice of concern from the State Charter School Board.
Tuacahn High School’s use of public funds and form of governance are consistent with its charter agreement, which has been in place for nearly 23 years. Tuacahn High School’s financials are independently audited each year to ensure financial integrity.
Tuacahn Center for the Arts and Tuacahn High School have successfully collaborated for more than two decades. The school’s relationship with Tuacahn Center for the Arts provides Tuacahn High School with access to facilities along with additional world class performance space.
We have been working with the State Charter School Board and are looking forward to answering their questions.

Read the letter issued by the Utah State Charter School Board here.

Kacey Jones, the development director for the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, responded in email to multiple questions about the issues raised here. Those questions and responses are printed in full below:

  • Have you seen the letter from the Utah State Charter School Board? Much of our story is based on the issues they raise.

"We are aware of the letter from the Utah State Charter School Board. The Tuacahn High School Board is actively working with the State Charter School Board to address the concerns in the letter."

  • The UCSB has concerns about the fact that the TCA board is also the board who oversees the school. How does TCA ensure that the school’s interests are attended to?

"As a nonprofit, Tuacahn Center for the Arts (TCA) has always had a mandate to fulfill an educational role. This was true even before Tuacahn High School existed. Since both entities operate under the same 501(c)3, many of the same individuals serve on both boards. This ensures that the nonprofit’s mission is always front and center as we continue to grow. We have effectively collaborated under this model for 22 years."

  • Why does TCA charge rent and maintenance fees, when the school was started by a $23 million grant?

"When Tuacahn Center for the Arts was constructed, generous private donors built a facility to provide unparalleled arts and educational experiences for the community. During TCA’s first four years, the facility next to the amphitheatre fulfilled our educational mission through a conservatory model that provided small-group arts instruction. TCA sought to provide the community additional opportunities and opted to replace the conservatory with Utah’s first charter high school.

The original Tuacahn High School Charter authorized by the Utah State Charter School Board made clear that Tuacahn High School would enter into a lease with Tuacahn Center for the Arts. In addition, THSA has agreed to help pay for IT services, utilities, custodial supplies and general building maintenance.

Tuacahn Center for the Arts provides Tuacahn High School free use of many resources, including use of the amphitheatre for school events and concerts, as well as a lease rate far below what other charter schools in the region currently pay.

Tuacahn High School is only paying approximately 25% of what other charter schools would pay for a similar facility. This means that TCA is subsidizing the school to the tune of nearly half a million dollars per year."

  • Why does TCA allow performing arts students to be regularly kicked out of performance space when professional production rent facilities?

"Tuacahn High School and Tuacahn Center for the Arts have an agreement to govern the use of all shared Tuacahn facilities. Together we collaborate through an internal process to schedule use of shared space and to resolve potential conflicts."

  • Does TCA do background checks on actors, staffers and others who are part of organizations who rent space from the TCA and the high school? If not, how do you ensure the safety of the students?

"The safety of our staff, patrons and—especially—students is our top priority. Students in the school must be supervised at all times, and all school faculty, staff and administration undergo background checks. We work closely with THSA to ensure we meet the safety needs of their students."

  • The school is charged as much as $35,000 a month for maintenance, IT, and rent. Why is that, again, if a Smith family grant paid for the Tuacahn space in the first place?

"The private donations that funded the creation of Tuacahn Center for the Arts were provided years before the idea of Tuacahn High School had even been conceived."

For more Beyond the Books investigations or to send a tip to our investigators, click here.