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Utah State Charter School Board appoints new — and expanded — executive team

Arizona charter school administrator has been tapped as the new executive director of the Utah State Charter School Board

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Students attend a rally for school choice hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools at the Capitol.

Hundreds of students attend a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 23, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A Phoenix charter school founder who previously served as an administrator at a Christian university in Glendale, Arizona, has been appointed executive director of the Utah State Charter School Board.

The board voted unanimously to name Paul Kremer as its executive director. Kremer succeeds Jennifer Lambert, who had held the top post since 2016 and resigned in June.

The board also appointed board staff member Marie Steffensen as associate executive director, a newly created position. Steffensen has served on the board staff since 2019 working as a school support coordinator.

Kremer, who earned a doctorate degree in lifespan developmental psychology from Arizona State University, has conducted extensive research on bullying in educational settings.

He is the founder of two charter schools, including Eagle College Prep in South Phoenix, as well as a preschool program. Between 2011 and 2015, Kremer held a number of administrative positions at Arizona Christian University, a private, nonprofit, Christian university.

He later served as the controller and assistant superintendent at Edkey, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides educational and operational support for more than two dozen public charter schools and programs in the Phoenix area.

Steffensen of South Jordan is a licensed Utah educator and administrator. She has expertise in early childhood education and holds a master’s degree in educational administration and school leadership.

She has worked as an instructional coach, coordinated the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program and served as a charter school executive director before joining the State Charter School Board staff four years ago.

”This marks a significant shift in leadership for the board,” said Bryan Bowles, chairman of the State Charter School Board, which authorizes 91% of Utah’s public charter schools.

Kremer’s “extensive background in the charter world” combined with Steffensen’s historical knowledge about Utah’s charter schools as well as state policies and procedures “makes it a great team,” he said,

“We only see us moving forward. This is a great time. I started by saying we were bull riding. I’ll just say that instead. We’ve been riding bulls for the last little while. We think we are able to kind of get everybody back in the corral and be productive and do great work moving forward,” Bowles said.

Royce Van Tassel, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said his initial conversation with Kremer was positive and he looks forward to working with him.

“He seems like a really good guy. We’re really happy to see somebody who’s been on the operating side of the charter school space. I think in the past all of our executive directors have only been on the enforcement or regulatory side. It’s not that anyone has bad intent, but you sometimes don’t realize the way your statements get understood on the other side of that table, so we’re very hopeful,” he said.

Last school year, roughly 12% of Utah’s public school population attended charter schools — some 78,732 students. The combined student body rivals the enrollment of the state’s largest school districts.

In Utah, charter schools are public schools. They have boards of directors and in most cases, operate independently of school districts.

Cynthia Phillips, vice chairwoman, said enrollment projections suggest a slight increase in the charter school headcount this fall and a slight decrease in neighborhood public schools but the official count, conducted Oct. 1, has yet to be released.

Presently, 1 in 5 Utahns is a school-age child, but the state’s birthrates are declining and some school districts are facing difficult decisions on how to handle shrinking enrollments, including school closures.

“We are going to see declines and charters that survive, because they are schools of choice, are going to be those that capture more of the demographic, or, alternatively, can adjust their revenues to match expenses in a creative way. The magic number is, your revenues and expenses work with your fixed costs. District schools that survive are going to be those that are responsive to communities,” Phillips said.

She added, “We’re all going to have to be very adaptable.”

Van Tassel said he anticipates there will be growth in charter school enrollment this fall and into the foreseeable future.

“I do expect to see an increase and I think that that growth is going to accelerate over the coming years, both for some structural reasons and because there’s a greater openness at the state charter school board about trying to find ways to make these things work,” he said.

Depending on how they are counted — some schools have multiple campuses or satellite campuses, there are currently 142 to 145 charter school campuses statewide, Van Tassel said.

More proposed schools and applications are in the pipeline, he said.

“I think that we’ll see a richer collection of solid applications moving forward. Certainly we. as an association, are going to be more aggressive in cultivating and helping folks write strong applications and identify where those students are going to come from. So I think we’re going to see accelerated growth in the charter sector over the next decade,” he said.