RIVERDALE — Utah Military Academy, a charter school headquartered in Riverdale with a second campus in Lehi, has at least one more month on warning status, as decided by the Utah State Charter School Board at their meeting Thursday.
Two members of the state charter board, Michelle Smith and Jim Moss, advocated to remove the school from warning status due to the significant progress made by the school’s board in resolving a host of issues there, though the charter board has not yet seen data on how some of the school’s new processes perform.
But the majority of the board, including Moss, ultimately voted for the school to remain on warning status because the school’s board had not fully resolved every issue identified in two notices of concern sent to the school by state charter board staff over the course of fall 2019.
Smith cast the only dissenting vote because the decision to keep the school on warning status will mean the school will be subject to higher interest rates on an impending bond issue.
The UMA board will return to share the school’s progress at the state charter board’s meeting on March 12, where a vote on the school’s status could occur.
The state charter board put UMA on warning status at its Dec. 12 meeting due to the school’s precarious financial situation and its mismanagement of a variety of other issues, including forgeries of signatures and dates on special education documentation, grade inflation to help a student gain admission to West Point and the school’s continuation of an online program not approved under the school’s charter.
When these issues came to light, the UMA board put the school’s executive director, Matt Throckmorton, on administrative leave. Throckmorton is no longer employed by the school, and the UMA board is in the process of searching for a new executive director, which should conclude at the UMA board’s meeting on March 10, said Chuck Williams, UMA’s board chair.
“Since we were here in December ... we have had four board meetings,” which are usually held on a quarterly basis, said Vickie McCall, UMA board member, at the Thursday meeting. “We had two emergency meetings to discuss personnel. We’ve had three budget meetings. ... I would say that’s six months’ worth of activity. ... This isn’t a one-time deal. This is for the long haul.”
Warning status is the lowest level of formal action the board can take toward a charter school exhibiting “deficiencies,” according to the state charter board’s oversight model.
At the state charter board’s December meeting, the board considered a harsher action, probation status, but decided against it because of the efforts of the school’s board and because probation status could negatively affect UMA’s plans for a bond issue, which would solve many of the school’s financial problems.
Two questions were lengthy points of discussion among state charter board members during the board’s meeting — whether the school’s bond issue plans should figure into the state charter board’s decision on its status and whether the school needs to satisfy 100% of the requirements in order to be removed from warning.
“I’m looking to be creative,” Moss said at the meeting. “I think we’re still developing the way we use the oversight model.”
“Have we made as a matter of policy that a school must 100% comply with every element of either a warning or probation before we remove them, or is that a judgement call for the board?” Moss continued later in the meeting. “My understanding is that that’s been a judgement call.”
“In the past you (the state charter board) have made judgment calls,” responded Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the state charter board. “Staff does not support that ... If we set a term, you want to make sure that term is being met, otherwise we cannot certify that that deficiency is resolved.”
Despite the board’s significant progress in a short period of time, state charter board Vice Chair DeLaina Tonks said that warning status means little if schools aren’t required to meet all requirements before being removed from the status.
As for the question of the bond issue, many state charter board members agreed that the decision on the school’s status should be made on the UMA board’s merits, not the school’s plans for a bond issue, but Smith pushed back on that point.
“What more could we ask from them at this day?” Smith asked. “What are the remaining things for them to do? Almost all of them relate to their bond. So we are not here to debate their bond, we’re here to debate their warning — but if the things we are asking of them in that warning require or would be greatly alleviated by favorable bond terms, then it would be foolish on our part to not extend them the ability to meet those items we’re asking them to do.”
Remaining on warning status when the bonds are issued will likely result in a higher interest rate, said the school’s financial advisor, David Robertson, vice president of the municipal financial advisory and consulting firm Lewis Young Robertson and Burningham.
“The cleanest way to get the lowest interest rate is taking (UMA) off warning,” Robertson said. “Regardless of what actions will be taken, we hope to move forward with the bond.”
UMA is expected to lock in an interest rate for the school’s bond issue mid-March, just after the state charter board’s March 12 meeting where the school’s status will be revisited. There is a degree of urgency, given that interest rates, which are currently favorable, could be affected by fears about the coronavirus and uncertainty about the U.S. presidential election, Robertson said. The school’s warning status will be disclosed to potential investors in the interim, he said.