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Art Institute of Las Vegas gets reprieve from closure

The Art Institute of Las Vegas was granted another stay of execution Wednesday after a state board gave the school’s new owners more time to complete their purchase and gather documents necessary to renew its license to operate.

The school was the subject of a hearing of the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation’s Commission on Postsecondary Education after its request to renew its license was denied in July.

Commissioners voted to delay the effective date of that denial to February 2020, by which time the school will be expected to meet certain requirements, including providing an update on the purchase at the commission’s November meeting. The school will also be required to notify its 211 enrolled students of its jeopardized standing.

The state of limbo is meant to give new owners Save Ai Las Vegas more time to complete the purchase and secure the funding needed to correct the faults the commission found, such as updating its list of current faculty and responding to what the commission described as growing student complaints.

But some students and staff described a sense of exhaustion over the added period of uncertainty, which dates to January 2019 with the dissolution of Ai’s parent company, Dream Center Educational Holdings, and has included months of federal receivership control.

Student Alexander Cotton said he did not want to see the school close abruptly because some of his peers are just days away from graduation. But he’s worried whether he — with more than a year of studies remaining — will be left in the lurch even if the school remains open.

“At this point we feel like hostages,” Cotton said. “Students who stay may not be getting the best education. But students who leave may not get their student debt forgiven.”

Commission discussion

Attorneys for the school said the denial had been a “curveball” to the new owners, who signed a purchase agreement just days before it was issued. Denying the request put the sale in jeopardy, according to receiver Mark Dottore, as Save Ai would not have much incentive to purchase a school that doesn’t have a license to operate.

But commission administrator Kelly Wuest said she did not have the legal authority to renew a school’s license if it didn’t meet certain financial requirements that it didn’t meet while under receivership control. And though the commission’s concerns were initially related to finances alone, Wuest said the department has since received student complaints related to quality of education and the treatment of veteran students.

The meeting turned tense at times as commission members reminded school director William Turbay that his team had missed a deadline to provide more information to the commission to prevent a denial. The commission requested more details by Aug. 26; the school provided it on Sept. 11.

Turbay said that Save Ai had lined up an investor who was ready to provide a line of credit that, combined with the release of federal funds, would allow the school to pay faculty, replace broken or missing equipment and meet other requirements outlined by the commission.

“But if I don’t have a license, I can’t do any of it,” Turbay said.

The commission initially discussed extending the deadline until only the next meeting in November, but decided on February in part to allow time to review the recommendations of the school’s accrediting body — the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools — which is set to meet in December.

Save Ai spokesperson Lisa Mayo-DeRiso said the decision was a win for the school.

Dottore said an extension will also allow more students to graduate in the interim, including some who are set to graduate this Friday. Pushing the deadline to February rather than November allows students who are already enrolled for fall to complete their quarter, Dottore said.

Dottore added that if the school had closed immediately, he would have worked to find a transfer option for all 211 students, as well as funding for faculty backpay.

“That’s 20 fewer students I’d have to find a placement for,” Dottore said.

Student and staff perspectives

Following the meeting, reaction from staff and students was deeply divided, with some saying they had lost faith that the new owners would ever find a resolution, while others expressed the opinion the school is on an upward trajectory.

Former teacher Troy “Tiki” James said he doubts Save Ai will be able to meet the deadlines imposed by the commission, but that he is relieved the school will be required now to notify students and staff about where they are in the process. Like other faculty, James says he went weeks without pay with little explanation, hearing the news that he would no longer receive a paycheck on the day his father died.

Student Jacob Quance, who expects to graduate in the spring, said the quality of his education has slowly been slipping over the last year, with teachers failing to provide syllabi or direction for their classes.

“There’s an obvious financial incentive for students if the school were to close, because we could get processed for loan forgiveness,” Quance said.

The Closed School Discharge Program allows students who were enrolled in a school that closed and meet certain criteria to get their federal loans discharged.

Fellow student Luis Guzman said he withdrew from his classes believing one of his teachers lacked the qualifications necessary to teach, echoing complaints made to the commission as well.

But Jerrimeh Salvio, who graduates on Friday, said students are likely to have different perspectives because they take classes from different teachers. Salvio said his own education has been nothing less than stellar, crediting in particular the teachers who stayed this year to teach despite the uncertainty.

Salvio said the unique, project-based curriculum of the school has suited him well as a kinesthetic learner. Closing the school would have an impact on his friends.

“It would be unfortunate, it would be such a waste of all this gusto and all this talent,” Salvio said.

Another student, Danielle Patton, who has a year left of classes, added she feels some students’ complaints can be traced to a lack of initiative to try hard in their classes or seek out information about the school.

Pete Sullivan, a 2014 graduate of the school who came back to teach, said current students and staff just want to see a conclusion.

“We want to get back to where we were,” Sullivan said. “We want to be a community-built school with a curriculum built around jobs in Las Vegas.”

Contact Aleksandra Appleton at aappleton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0218. Follow @aleksappleton on Twitter.

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