ST. GEORGE — Tensions were high at the end of a meeting meant to determine whether Tuacahn High School for the Arts Principal Dr. Drew Williams’ contract would be renewed.
Though some thought the THSA Board of Directors’ decision had already been made and that the meeting would just be a formality, the board ultimately tabled their decision until March 1.
Approximately 75 people – including students, parents, staff and faculty – signed up to comment on Williams’ impact upon the school. After three hours of public comments, which were hosted via a Zoom board meeting that was published on the Tuacahn High School YouTube channel, Williams was the final person to speak. He said he recognized that there may be tense relationships among THSA’s board members and apologized for any misunderstandings that may have occurred.
“What I know about the process is that greatness comes through the ability to work through conflict,” he said. “I believe these tense situations have come in part because of my constant raising of concerns regarding space and equipment use. I know that we can resolve these concerns, and I’m up for the task.”
He than asked that, at minimum, the board consider allowing him to finish out the school year.
During the preceding three hours, members of the Tuacahn community poured out their feelings in two-minute intervals. Among the more striking examples came from Sadie Best, whose daughter Autumn was cast in a Broadway show in northern Utah during the school year.
“She had to relocate to northern Utah to perform,” Best said. “When she was offered this amazing opportunity, we sat across from Dr. Drew in his office, and he said, ‘These are the dreams that Tuacahn is made for. Let’s figure out how to make it work.'”
Best said that Williams rallied teachers and staff to go above and beyond, specifically allowing her daughter to pursue the opportunity while continuing her school work. Autumn Best will attend the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in the fall, her mother said, thanks to THSA’s efforts, spearheaded by Williams.
Multiple students echoed these sentiments and spoke of how supported they felt by Williams, whether showing up at rehearsals or “every performance” or simply making an appearance at the ACT Prep class and giving them a boost of encouragement – and some candy. Several students said Williams knew all their names, their passions and their stories.
Tuacahn Dean of Students Chris Andrus spoke bluntly to the board.
“I will not support or agree with the termination of Dr. Drew Williams’ employment,” Andrus said. “I’ve been told that one of the factors being considered to terminate his employment is lower enrollment numbers. This concerns me.”
Tuacahn’s enrollment has been on the rise throughout the school year, Andrus said.
“In the four years that I’ve tracked the data,” Andrus said, “this kind of positive enrollment trend has never existed. Numbers have always been in the negative.”
Andrus then posed a question to the board.
“How is the board going to address the possibility of student enrollment and staff retention plummeting in reaction to the possible termination of Dr. Williams’ contract?” Andrus asked. “Not only for next year… but for years to come?”
Ryan Tilby, who teaches audio engineering at THSA, said he wondered how Williams’ absence would benefit his students.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand dramatic shifts in faculty moral and efficiency under his (Williams’) tenure,” Tilby said. “In the 16 years I’ve known Dr. Williams, I’ve never seen a breach in his moral integrity. He always does what he says he will do. He’s honest about his failures, like he is with his successes. And I appreciate his ability to change his mind based on new evidence.”
Tilby then pled with the board to provide a reason for Williams’ removal, if it came to pass.
“I don’t believe that the board’s insight into education justifies this move,” he said, fighting tears. “And I don’t believe that this move is in the best interests of our school or our students.”
Throughout the meeting, the THSA board, which shares most of its members with the Tuacahn Center for the Arts Board of Directors, came under fire for conflicts of interest. Tuacahn High School guidance counselor Kami Adams said that, in absence of a reason for terminating Williams’ contract, she saw a flaw emerge.
“At its heart, I see a dire conflict of interest in the relationship between THSA and TCA and the boards that direct them,” Adams said. “While on paper we have two boards, I fear the distinction is in name only. Drastic measures are being considered from a board that has little presence on our campus.”
The Tuacahn High School board, Adams said, made no inquiries to the staff or faculty as to Williams’ performance. Therefore, she said, the board hadn’t done its due diligence.
“For this reason, I fear that our best interests are being pushed aside,” she said.
The school’s board, which is currently under investigation by the Utah State Charter School Board, denied those allegations. St. George News reached out to the Utah State Board of Charter Schools for comment, but as of publication of this report, there hasn’t been a response.
Various participants asked the board to table its decision. Tuacahn guidance counselor Jen Gates offered her perspective as a staff member and parent.
“I have one word for you board members: accountability,” Gates said. “Are you going to pick up the pieces after this train wreck? Or are you going to hide out and leave it for someone else to clean up your mess?”
Gates lamented the fact that, as a parent, she had no reason as to why the board is considering terminating Williams’ contract.
“I believe it would be best to table this or renew his contract,” Gates said. “If you really care about our school, you will make the right decision and keep Drew.”
Just after midnight, board members returned from a closed session that lasted approximately an additional three hours and said they were tabling the decision.
“The board is still discussing things,” board President Jonathan Hafen said. “The comments that you made, particularly you students, were very impactful. There have been a lot of statements about decisions being made. … There were always possibilities out there, but no decision has been made.”
Hafen said Monday’s meeting was the board’s “first opportunity as a board to talk about what we talked about” and said information was given in closed session that he could not discuss that applied to both sides of the issue. Hafen then said the board had requested a report on the new curriculum that he said is being rolled out at the school.
“That curriculum has never been presented to the board,” he said. “We would like to talk about it more as a board.”
Hafen said the discussion of the new curriculum at the next meeting would be open to the public, and then the board would once again go into a closed session to discuss Williams’ contract.
The next THSA board meeting is scheduled for March 1 at 5 p.m.
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