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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Military Academy was placed on warning Thursday amid allegations that a student’s grades were changed to facilitate admission to a military academy, the school had circumvented state procurement laws, and has numerous financial deficiencies and concerns.
Under the conditions of the “warning,” the school’s directors must report back to the Utah State Charter School Board in a month and then on a regular basis regarding its progress toward correcting state regulators’ concerns.
The board could have placed the school on probation, but board members opted for the lesser sanction with the hope it would not interfere with the public charter school’s efforts to bond for its facilities.
The public charter school serves 1,058 students in grades seven through 12 at campuses in Lehi and Riverdale. Its vision is to “prepare cadets as leaders to thrive in any competitive environment upon graduation with a focus on entrance into the military academies,” according to its website.
Board chairwoman Kristin Elinkowski called the warning “an extremely kind motion” given the gravity of the deficiencies.
Other deficiencies outlined in board documents include “very low unrestricted days cash on hand,” irregularities in special education documentation and paying state employees after termination under unusual circumstances.
Several members of the academy’s board of directors addressed the board regarding work they have undergone since it received “notices of concern” from the state in October and November.
School directors informed the charter board that the school’s executive director, Matt Throckmorton, has been placed on administrative leave and the school has terminated its online “Viper Flight” program, which was not authorized under its charter agreement. The academy’s academic director, Steven Carroll, has been named interim director.
“We’re going to make this work. You got our personal word on that,” said Utah Military Academy board member Curt Oda, a former state lawmaker.
Board members said they had met at least 100 hours in the past three weeks conducting internal reviews of its operations in the wake of the issues raised by state charter school staff and whistleblowers.
“We’re all sleep deprived. We take this very, very seriously,” said academy board member Vickie McCall.
State Charter School Board member DeLaina Tonks lauded the board for its thorough approach to investigating matters raised by state regulators, but she questioned how long board members could conduct what are administrative functions.
“What’s the plan down the road?” Tonks asked.
Board members said that degree of oversight will eventually taper off as the board gets a better handle on concerns raised by regulators, as staff and board undergo additional training and as they change practices to head off problems in the future
“We have no intention of being involved in day-to-day operations,” Oda said.
Utah State Charter School Board member Brian Bowles, a former superintendent of the Davis School District, said the board’s recent oversight activities are impressive but it must not let up on its efforts, particularly if it receives a bond.
“If you are able to, with a warning, continue and bond and receive bond money and then fail, then you’re in a deeper, (more) difficult situation than you are today. That makes the situation far more grave. That doesn’t mean that having a warning and then moving forward with the bond that you need to relax. You need to be more vigilant as a result,” Bowles said.
The two notices of concerns detail a number of irregularities and concerns lodged with regulators.
“A hotline complaint to the State Board of Education alleged that while working as a business manager of the Utah Military Academy, the complainant was directed to print out personal activity records for the past three years, white out the computer time-stamped dates and then forge either the signatures or the dates for when these (records) should have been signed,” state documents say.
Regulators’ investigation into the complaint confirmed irregularities in the documents, according to board documents.
A hotline complaint to the State Board of Education alleged the academy paid two employees after termination to prevent information leaking about questionable ethical practices. “Investigation into this complaint found that the employees are no longer working at UMA and that they were paid past their employment,” the documents state.
One employee alleged that a student’s grades were changed without his permission so the student could get into the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“Changes to that student’s grades were made and the student graduated early to attend a military prep school and later received a congressional nomination to West Point,” the documents state.
Tonks said given the “breadth and depth” of the concerns raised, she would normally prefer that the board place the school on probation.
But given the academy board’s actions and plans “I am comfortable supporting the motion for warning,” she said.