Board to close Summit Denali
Charter school's $4.5 million deficit was divulged in January
“We have fought through a number of moments like these … I wish today could be another one, and I just don't think it can be.”
Summit Public Schools board member Diego Arambula
After weeks of unrest, backlash and pleas for answers from the community, the Summit Public Schools board voted March 2 to close Summit Denali, a Sunnyvale charter school with over 600 middle and high school students, after the semester ends this June.
The vote comes less than two months after administrators first announced the school likely would be closed at the end of the school year, citing a $4.5 million deficit and other irreconcilable financial issues.
At a March 2 meeting with parents and teachers, Summit CEO and co-founder Diane Tavenner said she felt a sense of failure over the school's circumstances, even though administrators examined many options for keeping the school open. Those options included taking out a line of credit to subsidize Denali's operations, operating Denali as only a middle school or only a high school and exploring whether it could operate as an onlineonly program.
“We've looked at all sorts of different financial vehicles and things like that,” Tavenner said. “The community put forward a whole set of options that we also looked at, every single one, and provided comment on and explored as well.”
Parents and teachers at the board meeting sharply rejected the conclusion, saying they were skeptical that serious discussions of alternatives to closure were considered.
“One of the big things that I have been trying to find is any evidence that the board, or Diane Tavenner, have explored other options of keeping even the high school open and closing the middle school, which I have not found,” said Kim Nicholson, a teacher who has worked at Summit Denali for seven years. “I'm very worried that that process has not happened.”
Some at the meeting also criticized the board for disclosing the school's circumstances when they did in mid-january, saying that they could have warned the Denali community about the school's financial woes much earlier and could have included parents and teachers in the problem-solving process.
“We have all these innovators; we have all these entrepreneurs that would love to be able to help,” said Jean Somlo, the parent of a former Denali student who transferred to another school two weeks ago over Denali's shaky circumstances. “There's just not enough time to help … if you could just engage with us and be more transparent about these things, that would be really helpful.”
Another parent, Michele Ryan, said she felt the board was rushing the decision to close the school, which opened 10 years ago, and should have considered making cuts at the board level first.
“The fallout from this action has the very real potential to damage the entire Summit Public Schools organization, as well as the entire charter school movement in California,” Ryan said. “You need to take responsibility as a board.”
The allegations of a lack of transparency on behalf of the Summit board also extended to the board meetings themselves. Several speakers at the meeting decried the fact that critical board meetings, including the very one they were speaking at, took place in the middle of the day, making them difficult for students, teachers and parents to attend.
“I am here in my classroom because the SPS board continues to meet at inaccessible times for students, families, teachers and the wider community,” said Justin Kim, a teacher at Summit K2 in El Cerrito and the president of the teachers union, Unite Summit, who appeared at the meeting via Zoom. “Parents, teachers and students are being kept out of some of the most important decisions that somebody is making, and that will have a drastic effect on their daily lives.”
In spite of those concerns — which had been raised repeatedly in the weeks following the Summit board's initial announcement — board members voted unanimously to shutter the school.
“I was on staff at Summit back when we opened Denali, and from the very first day we opened, we thought we might get closed,” board member Diego Arambula said. “We have fought through a number of moments like these … I wish today could be another one, and I just don't think it can be. I'm pretty torn up about that, and I think it's still the right thing.”