Aurora school board renews troubled charter school for two years

Vanguard Classical School will get another chance to fix governance problems, after the Aurora school board unanimously voted Tuesday to renew the school’s charter for two years.

The renewed charter school still must make many changes or risk a charter revocation at any point throughout the two years, including replacing its school board to add parents and eliminate board members who are affiliated with the company that the school contracts with.

Vanguard board members who were at the Tuesday meeting vowed to make all the required changes.

“We’re talking about that actively: how we can meet all of your expectations as quickly as possible,” said Robert Fulton, a Vanguard board member.

Vanguard board member Harsha Sekar said the school’s board will be independent from the company that it contracts with “very shortly.”

The Aurora school board could still revoke the charter if the conditions aren’t being met. Just last month the board voted to do just that with another school that the district said wasn’t meeting the needs of students with special needs.

In 2018 Aurora renewed Vanguard Classical School’s charter for just one year, because of concerns over the same conflicts of interest. Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he struggled with the renewal recommendation, due in December, because he first planned to recommend closure. Ultimately he said he chose to recommend renewal because the concerns do not extend to the education the school is providing students.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, has two campuses that serve more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Parents Tuesday night, and last month, asked the board to renew the charter. One father said he was planning to take his daughter out of the Aurora district if Vanguard didn’t exist. Many said their children with special needs found a safe place to learn at Vanguard.

Students and teachers said their school, which uses a classical model which lays out specific requirements of learning including a foundation of classical literature, is unique. One teacher talked about the school’s Latin classes, which aren’t offered in many schools.

“This school provides opportunities that the other schools just don’t have,” one grandfather of a student said.

Judy Ham, who is at the center of the district’s conflict-of-interest allegations, did not speak to the board.

The nonprofit Ability Connection Colorado opened the school in 2007. The organization, which provides education and programs for people with special needs, is led by CEO Ham, who also serves as the board president of Vanguard.

Since its opening, the school has paid the nonprofit for administrative work in human resources, risk management and nutrition and financial services.

District officials have repeatedly said that it is a conflict of interest for Ham to vote on or sign contracts between the nonprofit and the school. The district was also concerned that the contract with Ability Connection Colorado didn’t clearly list the services it was to provide to the school and wasn’t awarded through a competitive process.

Among a laundry list of other concerns is that the school hasn’t kept receipts for thousands of dollars in spending, that there are no term limits for board members, and that there are no records of the Vanguard board ever having voted on the contract to have ACCO manage so much of the school’s administration.

“Many of the agreements are executed by Judy Ham who serves both as president of the Vanguard Board and CEO of ACCO,” district documents state. “Furthermore, there are numerous conflicts of interests associated with signatories to these agreements. For example, the 2007 agreement includes signatures from both Judy Ham and her daughter.”

The district’s proposed renewal of Vanguard’s charter includes a long list of conditions to address the concerns and dates by which the changes must be made.

Among those, by April 1, Vanguard must develop and approve a policy that outlines limits for expenditures and what signatures would be required for approval. By May 20, Vanguard must amend its bylaws and restructure its board. By August, board members must be signed up for governance training.

The Aurora school board didn’t discuss its decision Tuesday. At a previous meeting when staff presented the recommendation, board members had questioned what gave district administrators confidence in the school’s ability to comply this time, and clarified that there was still a chance to revoke a charter if problems continued.

A crowded room of Vanguard supporters Tuesday cheered the board’s approval.