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Charter board reverses decision to close Beehive Academy

SALT LAKE CITY — The State Charter School Board reversed its decision Thursday to shut down a Holladay school that some believe is hiding ties to a controversial Islamic political movement.

The board originally voted to terminate Beehive Science & Technology Academy's operating contract on April 29, for chronic financial mismanagement. Following a two-day hearing with Beehive, the board voted to keep the tax-funded school open. The board will determine the condition of Beehive's probation on July 15.

"Although it may seem like a victory for Beehive … this is not about victory," said Tom Morgan, who led Thursday's meeting. "As it is, there are some serious issues that have been discussed — issues that still need to be addressed."

Beehive, which serves students in seventh through 12th grades, first came under scrutiny in July 2009, when a group of teachers and parents approached the State Office of Education with concerns that the school was operating as part of a nationwide network of charters controlled by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim preacher who resides in Pennsylvania. While Gülen is known to many as the nonviolent face of Islam, others believe he is practicing "silent jihad" by quietly infiltrating foreign education systems. Though the State Charter School Board eventually determined Beehive was not preaching Islam in the classroom, the complaints spurred a six-month investigation that turned up a tangle of money problems. Beehive started the school year $33,000 in debt, stuck in a building lease that administrators couldn't afford to pay. Board members criticized the school for relying on high-interest personal loans to support day-to-day operations, as well as paying out more than $53,000 to bring teachers from Turkey to Utah.

Marlies Burns, State Charter School director, said the board decided not to close the school because "the law is extremely vague." Though Utah Code gives the charter board power to shut down a school for "failure to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management," the statute does not specifically define what constitutes "accepted."

"There is reason to believe the law could be interpreted differently by different people," Burns said.

David Jordan, Beehive's attorney, said the school has "significantly improved" its financial situation. Cost-cutting measures and fundraising have "more than taken care of" Beehive's problems, he said. Administrators have renegotiated the school's lease. All of the school's personal loans — which total about $90,000 — have been forgiven.

The board's decision was good news for about 30 parents and students who gathered at the State Office of Education to support Beehive. People waited nearly three hours for the verdict while board members deliberated behind closed doors.

"I am ecstatic," said Mindy Nickell, a West Jordan mother whose son is in eighth grade at Beehive. "This school has worked miracles for my son. I don't know what I would do if we lost it."

The state's decision to close Beehive failed to take into account Beehive's function, she said. She said her son, who has Asperger's syndrome, has gotten a top-notch education at the school.

"This isn't about religion, and it's not about politics," she said. "It's about education. When it comes to education, Beehive's test scores should be enough proof that they deserve to stay open."