Former Tuacahn board member says recent termination of principal reflects ‘just the tip of the iceberg’

Former Tuacahn High School Principal Dr. Drew Williams in Ivins, Utah, Feb. 19, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Amid turmoil over the Tuacahn High School Board’s decision to replace Principal Dr. Drew Williams, a former board member contacted St. George News to say that Williams is only the latest in a long line of people who’ve been wrongfully terminated.

Tuacahn Amphitheatre in Ivins, Utah, Jan. 4, 2021 | File photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“When I read the news that Dr. Williams’ was being replaced, I said to myself: ‘Oh, no, Kevin Smith has done it again,'” said Nelson Hafen, who was on the boards of both Tuacahn Center for the Arts and the high school from 2010 to 2018 and who is also the second-cousin of Jonathan Hafen, the current board chair for both boards.

Nelson Hafen said that during his time with the board, he saw a number of people who were good at their jobs get dismissed – in one way or another – by Smith, who is the CEO of Tuacahn Center for the Arts and who has no hiring or firing authority at the publicly funded charter school.

“Williams is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hafen said of the former high school principal. “The board is often blindsided by Smith. By the time they become aware of his decision to let someone go, the train has already left the station.”

This is a shame, Hafen said, “because it makes board members look complicit.”

Hafen claimed this kind of thing has happened many times before. He shared a list of 14 people he felt were dismissed for questionable reasons; however, he said many of them are under nondisclosure agreements, which means they cannot speak about their experiences without facing litigation.

“And it will happen again, unless Smith is replaced,” Hafen said. “But it is virtually impossible to remove Smith for any reason. Though there have been many good reasons to do so, he’s protected by the executive board. Three of the five members of that board are ‘Smiths.'”

Hafen said the first time he and Smith clashed was when Smith “ripped into” an investment banker who secured funding for a new building at the Center for the Arts.

“We knew we needed a certain amount to build the building. And thanks to the investment banker, we got the funding we needed,” he said, adding that when Smith had the run in with the banker, that’s when Hafen knew Smith “needed to go.”

“I care deeply for Tuacahn,” he said.” I’m deeply invested in its success, but you can’t build a successful organization when it’s run by a CEO who’s that tone deaf.”

That wouldn’t be the last time he and Smith would bump heads. Throughout his eight years on the board, he said he saw a pattern emerge.

“Smith meddles in every aspect of Tuacahn, and if you butt heads with him, you get ousted,” Hafen said, later adding, “I remember distinctly trying to keep Smith away from Williams, as he is a meddler.”

Jim Bennett, who was Tuacahn Center for the Arts’ marketing and artistic director from 1999 to 2003 and served as a principal of the high school for a brief time, told St. George News that Hafen’s stories sounded similar to his own.

Bennett said he was fired twice by Kevin Smith: once in 2001 and again the following year.

“Both times, Hyrum Smith stepped in for me,” Bennett said, referring to Kevin Smith’s uncle, the author, businessman and philanthropist who many say played a pivotal role in making Tuacahn what it is today. Hyrum Smith dedicated both financial support – to the tune of a $23 million donation – as well as serving on the Tuacahn Center for the Arts board for 25 years.

In this 2016 file photo, Tuacahn board of directors Vice Chairman Hyrum Smith addresses the assembly at the groundbreaking for the new Tuacahn Arts Center, Ivins, Utah, Jan. 20, 2016 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

“Hyrum said: ‘I know that Kevin doesn’t have the ability to do this alone. That’s why I need you there. I need you to clean up the messes he makes,'” Bennett said of an interaction with the late financier.

Bennett said that Hyrum Smith told him that he’d never fire Kevin Smith because he was family.

“But I’ve seen Kevin chew up and spit out so many people,” Bennett said, “and it’s just not right.”

Because both Tuacahn Center for the Arts and the high school receive significant public funding, Hafen and Bennett said they should be held accountable to taxpayers.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to be run like a family business,” Hafen said.

Randy Ford, a certified public accountant who was contracted to oversee how Tuacahn spent the $6 million grant intended as capital for a new building, said he agreed with Hafen’s assertion about how things were operating at the Center for the Arts.

“I saw a number of highly questionable things during my time at Tuacahn,” Ford said.

St. George News attempted to reach Smith to ask about the claims made by Hafen, Bennett, Ford and others; however, a representative from the Center for the Arts requested that any questions be submitted to them via email.

When asked how much public funding the Tuacahn Center for the Arts and high school receive, the statement from the Center for the Arts didn’t give a specific number; however, they acknowledged that they receive such funds.

“Tuacahn Center for the Arts has benefitted from a network of generous supporters, including the State of Utah, Washington County, and our local municipalities including the City of Ivins, St. George City, the City of Santa Clara, and the City of Hurricane,” the statement read. “Tuacahn’s donors and supporters are community builders who anchor the arts. They are essential to our work and help us fulfill our mission to edify and inspire the human spirit.”

Ford told St. George News he had clashed with Smith over how certain public funds should be spent, adding that he felt that the way Smith wanted to use some of the funds was not in alignment with what he viewed as best practices for usage of such funding.

Ford said when word got out that he had concerns, Jonathan Hafen asked him to write a memo detailing his concerns and said it would not be shared with anyone. Shortly after writing the statement, Ford was called into Smith’s office.

“Kevin Smith was sitting at his desk with the memo in his hand,” Ford said. “I don’t know how he got the memo, but my contract agreement was effectively terminated. That’s the problem. Kevin Smith does what he wants, and nobody reins him in.”

Still, Ford said that he loves Tuacahn and that there should be more oversight.

“A lot of people and institutions give money to Tuacahn each year,” Ford said. “But they have no idea what happens there. Under the patina of their public image, there’s something disturbing going on.”

A question of ‘why?’

St. George News also asked the Center for the Arts what role Smith plays in the hiring and firing of Tuacahn High School staff, to which the organization responded that Smith “plays no role in employment decisions at Tuacahn High School.”

“Tuacahn High School operates under a charter authorized by the Utah State Charter School Board,” the statement said. “The Principal of Tuacahn High School makes all employment decisions independent of Tuacahn Center for the Arts.”

When asked specifically about the process by which Williams’ contract was terminated, the organization stated it was a question better directed to the high school board.

Board chair Jonathan Hafen told St. George News that “all appropriate steps have been taken concerning employment decisions regarding Dr. Drew Williams.”

However, at least one board member disagreed. Victoria Wilson, who was one of two members to vote against terminating Williams’ contract and is a considerable donor to both the school and the Center for the Arts, resigned from the board the night that decision was made.

“I am deeply saddened by what has occurred with Dr. Drew Williams,” Wilson told St. George News in a statement. “I do not feel that sufficient reason was provided for the decision to terminate Dr. Williams.”

Wilson’s comments echo the question that has been at the forefront of many of the Tuacahn High School faculty and staff regarding Williams’ termination. Many feel they still have not been given an answer to the question, “Why?”

Williams told St. George News about a recent exchange with Kevin Smith during which he said the CEO became combative.

“I was asked by K Smith to vaccinate his staff under the teacher vaccination rollout (in late Dec),” Williams wrote in a text message. “I shared it was unethical and I was pressed on the issue by him and the board chair into early January. I even reached out to the state to see if it would be possible and was advised against it. This culminated in a phone call with Kevin S where he became upset at me, stating I was making this a ‘power struggle.’ There were 3 people in the room that heard this conversation.”

One of the people in the room, a Tuacahn High faculty member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, corroborated the telephone exchange.

In its statement to St. George News, Tuacahn Center for the Arts said it deferred to Williams’ discretion on the matter of COVID-19 vaccination eligibility. The statement reads as follows:

Because Tuacahn High School and Tuacahn Center for the Arts share certain facilities, when guidelines surrounding the vaccinations at schools were released, the TCA administration and Principal Williams discussed whether TCA staff who have in-person interaction with students were eligible based upon Utah Department of Health requirements.  Some of the employees discussed include TCA staff who provide daily school lunch to students through the Tuacahn Café, janitorial staff who clean shared performance spaces, IT employees who support High School computers and networks, members of the TCA production team who utilize shared performance spaces, and a small number of TCA administrators who have access to shared space.  An inquiry by TCA was also made as to whether other Utah Charter Schools were vaccinating Board Members. Although TCA made this inquiry, it was expected that any decision regarding vaccinations would be made by Principal Williams in accordance with applicable guidelines.  Principal Williams made the final decision on vaccination eligibility and a small number of TCA personnel were vaccinated.  No Board Members sought or received vaccines through their affiliation with the school.

It wasn’t long after the telephone exchange that Jonathan Hafen announced that the board had voted to replace Williams.

While the community rallied to support Williams, citing improvements in enrollment, ACT prep and overall school culture, the high school board saw things differently. Hafen stated there were some reasons discussed in the board’s executive session that he couldn’t share, but one of the reasons he cited was a decrease in student enrollment.

“During our last meeting, there were comments made suggesting that the school has been experiencing a positive enrollment trend,” Hafen said during the March 1 board meeting. “Respectfully, that is not correct. Enrollment at Tuacahn High School for the Arts is the lowest it has been in nearly a decade, while the St. George area is one of the fastest growing in the nation.”

Chris Andrus speaks at a Tuacahn High School of the Arts Board meeting in St. George, Utah, Feb. 22, 2021 | Screenshot via Zoom, St. George News

Tuacahn Dean of Students Chris Andrus refuted Hafen’s characterization of the enrollment data.

“I can’t speak for other people and where their information comes from,” Andrus told St. George News. “What I can provide is data.”

Enrollment numbers Andrus shared with St. George News showed that in 2017-18, Williams’ own sophomore year as Tuacahn High School principal, the school lost 43 students. In 2018-19, that number dropped to 32, followed by 28 in the 2019-20 year. However, in the most recent report, which includes enrollment numbers through the third quarter of this year, the school had gained 10 students. This represents a curve, Andrus says, that does show a drop after Williams’ first year as principal but which has leveled off and started upward the longer he has been at the school.

“The data should speak for itself and is hard to dispute when looked at objectively,” Andrus said.

Wilson agreed that Williams had contributed positively to the school in his time as principal.

“I feel that more consideration and due process should have been afforded an individual who has accomplished so much good for the school and has so much support,” she said in her statement.

When asked if he wished to share any new developments, St. George News received the following statement from Williams via text message:

I am on administrative leave until Board Chairs Law Firm sends me an NDA (nondisclosure agreement) or Separation Agreement. I have received this … and sent it to my legal council. My attorney has reached out to Parr Brown. … I have not declined or accepted any agreement from the Board Chair’s, Jon Hafen’s law firm, Parr Brown.

When this issue first came to light, Tuacahn High School counselor Jennifer Gates told St. George News that the high school board was being investigated by the Utah State Charter School Board.

St. George News reached out to the state board for confirmation and received a Notice of Concern from Benjamin Rasmussen, records officer for the Utah State Charter School Board. In the two-page notice of concern, the state board identified six areas of concern, including several points under “governing structure” that reflect issues expressed by Tuacahn High faculty and staff in February regarding the co-mingling of the Center for the Arts and high school boards.

Other areas of concern from the state board include use of public funds, violations by the board of the Open and Public Meetings Act, and enrollment/financial viability.

The notice said the high school board would be “required to appear” before the state charter board at their April 8 meeting, which the state board said will likely be held over Zoom.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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