MURRAY — It had all the trappings of any high school graduation: caps, gowns, proud parents snapping photos, soaring speeches about hopes and dreams for the future.
But commencement ceremonies at American International School of Utah Friday were unique in that the class of 2019 will be the last to graduate from the public charter school, which is closing. A group of 135 students graduated during ceremonies at the school.
"It was a mix of celebratory and sadness, but I think that's how most graduations are as everyone takes the next steps. It didn't feel much different than it normally would, which was good," said the school's marketing director Jordan King.
In May, the school's board's board of directors voted to close the school amid concerns about the school's financial viability, the likelihood of further state scrutiny of its operations and the possibility of additional liabilities.
The school closure displaced some 1,300 students and 170 full- and part-time employees.
"It's kind of like we're all graduating from AISU," King said.
Instead of spending the summer ramping up for the next academic year by hiring teachers and staff, assigning classrooms and making other instructional plans, the school's leaders have been busy readying documents to help students transfer to new schools and taking an inventory of the school's assets.
"I have to say they've done a really good job with the student records. They know where the kids are going, or if they don't, they're finding out what schools they're going to be placed in so all of those records will be turned over to us," said Deputy State Superintendent of Operations Scott Jones.
AISU officials met with top state education officers Friday to discuss the next steps of the school closure, which include working with Squire & Co, a certified accounting firm retained by the Utah State Charter School Board, "to assist in reconciliations and the process of moving forward," said Jones.
One issue that looms large is a finding by the state special education officials that the school must repay $170,000 in federal special education funds by June 26.
A state review found the school needs to repay a total of $415,689 in state and federal special education funding which state officials say were improperly spent or the school lacked proper documentation for the expenditures.
While the state has forgiven expenditures of some charter schools in the past, the federal government insists on repayment and a school closure is not an acceptable rationale to seek forgiveness, according to one court decision.
It is unclear how the school would repay the costs since its last state funding will be paid in July, but liquidating some school assets will likely help the school meet obligations, Jones said.
In all, the school's obligations may be as high as $750,000, but the exact figure will not be known until the certified accounting firm retained by the Utah State Charter School Board staff completes its review of the school's expenditures, revenues and assets, he said.
Jones said he hopes that the school's board of directors will come up with options for the elected state school board to consider as the closure process continues. That could include asking the board to write off its debt or other interventions.
As for the federal special funds, Jones said he is confident the school will deliver a check for the full amount to state officials later this month.
The State School Board staff's review of special education expenditures focused on the 2016, 2017 and 2018 fiscal years.
Current board members and school officers blame much of the school's current financial and record-keeping problems on previous operators. The school had operated at a deficit for a number of years but was in the midst of a course correction this academic year, said Tasi Young, AISU's executive director, in a previous interview.
King said the primary goal at the school this week was to end the school year on a positive note.
The school community came together at a carnival at the school hosted by AISU's parent teacher organization.
To that end, Young, while addressing AISU's board of directors earlier this week, said he had urged the faculty and staff to fully participate in the event "as a big celebration of everything that's happened here over the years."
It's kind of like we're all graduating from AISU.