Sunnyvale charter schools lack funding to stay afloat
Summit Denali in Sunnyvale is likely shutting down in June. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    An imminent shutdown of a Sunnyvale charter school could be the result of longtime financial issues and lack of transparency.

    Officials with Summit Public Schools, which runs charter schools in Washington and California, provided information to the Santa Clara County Board of Education on Wednesday about the dire financial state of its Summit Denali middle and high schools in Sunnyvale.

    Summit Public Schools previously pointed to several financial problems as causes for the probable closure. This includes the decline of COVID-19 pandemic stimulus funds, loss of state funds in light of declining enrollment and ongoing budget deficits since Denali’s opening in 2013. Officials also pointed to the rising cost of educational services, including speech pathology and mental health counseling.

    Summit Public Schools CEO Diane Tavenner said the charter’s board might make a final decision in March on whether to close the school.

    “We were on a trajectory to make the school successful and we’ve literally done everything in our power to do that,” Tavenner said. “I hope we are wrong. I hope there is a solution.”

    Summit Public Schools alerted parents of a potential June closure for Summit Denali in mid-January, pointing to enrollment problems and a lack of sustainable funding despite a roughly $31 million investment made to construct a new high school campus, which opened in 2021.

    Summit’s presentation on Wednesday revealed about $14.7 million was invested in the 2017-18 school year, $1.6 million in the 2018-19 school year and $18 million in the 2019-20 school year. Officials confirmed the $31 million figure with San José Spotlight. These investments included “ongoing Denali HS construction costs,” which involved project delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “It’s difficult to wrap my head around why the central office would make these very large commitments just a few years ago, and now we’re looking at a potential closure,” board member Tara Sreekrishnan said.

    No more options

    Summit Public Schools CFO Edward Lee said the plan is to eventually sell the high school site. The middle school site is under a lease and discussions are still in the works on what to do, he added. Lee said leaders have already considered alternatives to the shutdown, such as operating a fully virtual program, but none of it is viable.

    “Given that there were taxes and bonds used to finance the (high school) building, there is effectively an obligation to our bondholders to pay down the bond debt,” Lee said.

    Dozens of parents, students and teachers turned out to the meeting, some wearing t-shirts with “We are Denali” on the front.

    Harfijah Oliver, parent of a seventh grader, said discussions on Summit Denali’s financial situation should have occurred long before the closure announcement. She said the abrupt situation, coupled with uncertainty over the final decision, means her child’s school plans for next year are up in the air.

    “You just had so many missed opportunities to work in partnership with parents,” Oliver said. “Looking at your financials, we are a sacrificial lamb. That’s what Summit Denali is.”

    United Summit President Justin Kim, the union for Summit Public Schools teachers, said leaders must work with educators to address job stability and increase public access to Summit Public Schools board meetings. Officials said Summit Public Schools board meetings happen during the afternoons, but are virtual and open to the public. The next board meeting is March 2.

    “United Summit has long been asking for transparency and cooperation from Summit Public Schools management,” Kim said.

    Tavenner said Summit Public Schools is working with parents to find other Summit and charter school options for students affected by the probable closure. Teachers are also welcome to submit transfer applications to other Summit locations, although employment isn’t guaranteed, she added. Summit Public Schools has locations in Redwood City, Daly City and San Jose.

    “Running charter schools is really hard, it’s a really hard environment. There is always this balance of projecting confidence and believing that you’re going to be able to do it… and being honest and transparent,” Tavenner said. “There’s a number of factors that have come into place that have put us into this position.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at loa[email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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