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Utah reverses course on Vanguard Academy’s board, but the charter remains on shaky ground

Vanguard Academy, front door and sign, West Valley City, Sept. 15, 2022
Jim Hill
/
KUER
Vanguard Academy in West Valley City, Sept. 15, 2022.

The Vanguard Academy’s lawsuit against the Utah State Charter School Board has been dismissed without prejudice. The dismissal follows a vote by the charter school board to not fire the academy’s own school board.

Vanguard Academy, located in West Valley City, remains on probation and could still be shut down.

The academy is tied to the Davis County Cooperative Society, which is often referred to as the Kingston group. Most cooperative members belong to the Latter Day Church of Christ, a fundamentalist sect that’s known to practice polygamy. According to the suit, seven of the nine current Vanguard board members are part of the church and cooperative. A majority of the academy’s students are a part of the church.

An investigation into the school started in 2021 after the state auditor’s office received a complaint about Vanguard’s enrollment, procurement practices and lack of diversity. The State Charter School Board placed Vanguard on “warning status” in June 2021 and identified several problems that needed to be fixed in order to remain in good standing.

The main concern was a potential conflict of interest when it comes to vendors.

Jennifer Lambert, the executive director of the State Charter School Board, said a red flag was Vanguard’s vendors are not used by other charter schools. She also said there are lists that have been used in court cases of companies that are affiliated with the cooperative. A lot of those same companies are used by Vanguard Academy.

At a meeting on Aug. 22, the state board voted to place the school on probation, saying it had not made adequate progress toward fixing the problems outlined in the investigation. A vote was also held to remove and replace all nine of the members of Vanguard’s school board.

In response, the Vanguard Academy sued to appeal the decision and alleged religious bias. Judge Laura Scott granted a temporary restraining order in early September to prevent the replacement of Vanguard’s board until a hearing could be held on Oct. 4.

On Sept. 8, the State Charter School Board overturned their earlier decision to remove Vanguard’s board.

“The removal and replacement of the governing board was intended to be a tool to help Vanguard Academy, to help them not close,” said Lambert. “But if it is not going to be effective, there’s no use in pursuing that tool.”

Grace Mitchell, a founding member of Vanguard Academy and the school board treasurer, gave the following statement to KUER:

“We feel the [State Charter School] Board's decision to put Vanguard on probation was not warranted given the high performance of the school, both fiscally and academically. Vanguard has been very open to oversight. We are interested in being responsive to the concerns of the [state board] on conflicts of interest. While we feel the [State Charter School Board]'s reversal of their decision to remove the board was a step in the right direction, we know there is a long way to go and we are actively working to resolve any issues.”

Vanguard is still under probation and a vote on whether to shut it down will come later this year. Lambert said if Vanguard is making significant progress toward fixing the school’s problems but is not fully there, the probationary period can be extended.

If the State Charter School Board does vote to close, the earliest that the academy would be shut down is after the school year. However, if Vanguard goes to the courts, Lambert said it could take a lot longer.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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