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15 laid off at Liberty Academy

Charter school aims to cut budget by $1 million

SALEM — Twelve teachers, the director, business manager and a receptionist have been laid off at Liberty Academy charter school in an attempt to trim about $1 million from the budget.

Founding members of the school's board of trustees have also resigned. They have been replaced by new members, who hired nearby American Leadership Academy director Robert Muhlestein as a consultant to help get the school's books back in the black.

The employees are gone but will be paid through Saturday.

The school's new board will next decide whether to lay off any part-time teachers' aides in the next weeks.

"The worst part has happened," Muhlestein said.

Muhlestein described a meeting with about 65 parents Tuesday night.

"That's an emotional thing for parents," he said. "Some of their kids' teachers were let go."

The original board had planned for about 550 students. But the October enrollment was 297 students, Muhlestein said.

The former trustees estimated the budget for this year would be nearly $2.9 million, but it will actually be closer to $1.5 million, Muhlestein said.

Michael Brockbank, the school's former chief administrative officer, declined to comment.

The school's state-approved charter is to educate students in kindergarten through 12th grade. When the school opened fall 2006, it had grades K-8. This year, it added ninth and 10th grades, but the high school has only 20 students total.

Muhlestein said the high school is still intact, with seven periods a day and electives such as computer technology, band and drama.

"It's just a very small high school," Muhlestein said.

The school's board has also renegotiated its lease payments to Excel Education Group, which built the school on Elk Ridge Drive in Salem.

"We're kind of eating it on this one for this year," said Tom Pitcher, Excel's chief executive officer.

The loss for Excel will be about $150,000.

Excel was supposed to lease the building to Liberty Academy's board through this year, when the board was supposed to get a Utah County-backed bond issuance and to purchase the building.

Now the board's plans to purchase the building are on hold.

"It was going to be this month," Pitcher said. "The bond issue was ready to go, but then enrollment came in lower than expected. But with the ALA partnership, we're getting some interest (in the banking community) because there are a lot of investors who are interested. (American Leadership Academy has) been around for some time. They've got a name people like."

The former employees were not protected by teacher unions because charter schools employ at will.

But since the teachers were let go for reasons beyond their control, they should not have problems finding work, Muhlestein said, noting the state's teacher shortage. One teacher is already working at a school in Santaquin. And Muhlestein said that American Leadership Academy has openings for a few positions.

"In honesty, it wasn't the teachers' fault," Muhlestein said. "It was the prior management. ... The founding members of Liberty's board had resigned. Their two elected parents were left and they appointed (other members)."

The new trustees have experience running American Leadership Academy, according to Liberty Academy's Web site. Shalina Way, a new trustee and founding trustee of American Leadership Academy, did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment on the layoffs.

But at a meeting last month at the Utah State Office of Education, State Charter Board member Scott Smith said Liberty Academy's financial situation made closure possible.

"Here we have an issue where literally we were going to lose a school with 300 students and displace them all," he said.

American Leadership Academy and Liberty Academy are looking for ways to coordinate their schools.

"For example, we have Chinese," Muhlestein said. "We have one Chinese period. Maybe if you have another school, you could have two (classes)."

They must seek state approval if they initiate programs that change their charters, state charter director Marlies Burns said.