AUSTIN (KXAN) – Three of Debbie Esterak’s children have attended Hyde Park Schools. She glows as she speaks about the education they’ve received.
“Your kids don’t get lost there,” said Esterak, whose daughter is currently a junior at the high school campus. “They’re known for who they are, and they’re known by name.”
The passion parents have for the private school and their children’s education has come through in multiple meetings of the Hyde Park School Board of Directors this fall. KXAN attended these meetings, where angry parents have expressed concern about what’s at stake for their high school-aged children, since the school is on probation and could lose accreditation as soon as Nov. 29.
To understand why this is happening, it is helpful to understand the history of Hyde Park Schools and how it is accredited.
The school was created as a ministry of Hyde Park Baptist Church and separately incorporated in 2008. But there are still ties between school and church. For example, according to the school’s bylaws, at least four Directors on the school’s board must be church members, and the church otherwise has a major say in who gets elected.
The school pays the church to use some of the latter’s facilities for instruction and athletics through a Facilities Use Agreement (FUA). However, because the school is considered a ministry of the church, the church must only charge the school incremental costs, like utilities.
Through the Church-School relationship, Hyde Parks Schools is accredited by the Accreditation Commission of the Texas Association of Baptist Schools, or ACTABS. College admissions officers see that accreditation and know the school meets state standards, at the least.
Additionally, Hyde Park Schools is accredited by Cognia.
A fractured relationship between church and school
When ACTABS came to re-accredit Hyde Park School earlier this year, it noted violations “not in regard to academic instruction, curriculum integrity, or school operations.”
Instead, the commission found a fractured relationship between church and school, which has become the main obstacle to the school becoming re-accredited. In March, the ACTABS visiting team noted “concerns about the lack of a harmonious financial partnership between the governing body of the church and the governing body of the school.”
As church and school were also trying to negotiate a new Facilities Use Agreement, ACTABS indicated it wanted to see “verifiable actual expenses in order to determine if they meet the ACTABS standard of an incremental expense.”
ACTABS said in a letter to the school and church community earlier this month: “Never in our history of accrediting schools have we witnessed the relationship struggles between church and school as evidenced between Hyde Park Baptist School and Hyde Park Baptist Church.”
Parents tell KXAN the relationship began to sour when the church replaced several school board of directors members this year and charged a significantly higher cost to use its facilities. The two sides have since come to a Facilities Use Agreement.
“I think what’s really hard is the unknown,” said Esterak, on accreditation. “I just don’t think people want to send their money to a school when the product is really unknown.”
We have made multiple attempts to get Hyde Park Baptist Church on the record in the last month. The church, through a spokesperson, has not agreed to an on-camera interview about the accreditation process.
Last week, the spokesperson released to us a September video message from Church Senior Pastor Kie Bowman.
“Back in May, the ACTABS accrediting agency let the school know that they needed additional information from the church as it relates to the Facility Use Agreement,” said Bowman in the video. “The Church provided, in August, information that we thought was going to be sufficient. ACTABS has since requested additional information. Of course, we are going to work with ACTABS, and we are going to do everything we can to secure accreditation as much as it is in our power to do so.”
He added: “I really believe with all my heart, that we will do everything possible we need to do, in order to get accreditation for the school, and that’s what we want. We want the school to be accredited.”
In the recent letter, ACTABS issued several recommendations it needed to see happen before it would re-establish the school’s accreditation, with a deadline of Nov. 29:
- Further clarification on the Facilities’ Use Agreement (FUA) with accurate and appropriate data sets.
- FUA will be revisited on a yearly basis with accurate and appropriate data sets.
- FUA shows evidence of a harmonious relationship between school use and church use. Current FUA requires the school to serve the church in set-up and tear down without compensation; however, there is no evidence where the church serves the school in a similar fashion.
- HPBS Board of Directors must be in compliance and represent historical appointments or elections for voting members. This should fairly represent parent/guardian, school administration, and church interests.
- Confirmation of compliance from the school administration with Standard IV-A (“The head administrator of the school is authorized to manage and operate all programs of the school – financial, academic, spiritual, physical, co-curricular activities, discipline, admissions, facilities, personnel, etc. – under published policies adopted by the governing body or the church body.”)
- A statement of harmonious relationship co-authored and signed by the HPBS Head of School, the HPBS Board of Directors, and the HPBC Continuity Director. This statement must be a true reflection of the resolution of disagreements and discrepancies between HPBS and HPBC and must include testimony as to how the harmonious relationship was repaired and will be maintained.
- No change in HPBS administration during the course of this process.
In the background of all this is a legal fight detailing the power struggle between former Hyde Park School Board of Directors and current ones, the latter parents say are more sympathetic to church interests.
A lawsuit filed in September by dozens of parents, several which included former members of the school’s board of directors, claimed “[Hyde Park Baptist Church] has sought to benefit from the school’s financial success, but in doing so has disregarded the school’s Bylaws and put the school’s accreditation in serious jeopardy.
In October, a judge dismissed the lawsuit due to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which prohibits civil courts from delving into matters of “theological controversy.” The plaintiffs have since requested a new trial.
A more recent lawsuit filed by the school and its current board alleges that several of the former school directors diverted $6.5 million into a new foundation and changed its bylaws so the money that isn’t for the sole purpose of supporting Hyde Park School, but instead to “support and promote educational programs having a Christ centered culture, excellent academics, and a Biblical Worldview.”
Attorneys for the board members have countered the suit is frivolous and that the former board was simply doing its job and looking out for Hyde Park School’s financial interests.