The Aurora school board is considering whether to renew a charter school — if it meets a long list of conditions — even though it has ignored district concerns about its finances and governing board.
The board last renewed Vanguard Classical School’s charter for just one year, because of concerns over conflicts of interest. Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he struggled with the renewal recommendation, due in December, because he first planned to recommend closure, but then decided to give Vanguard more time to provide information.
“The ultimate thing that I keep very heavily in mind around this kind of question is whether or not student needs are being met,” Munn said. “In this circumstance, we have not had any question about their student needs being met. In that context I felt very reluctant to recommend revocation.”
The Aurora school board will make its decision March 5.
Among conditions for Vanguard, the district suggests the school replace its board to include two parents and exclude employees of Ability Connection Colorado, a non-profit that founded the school and is now contracted to manage some services for Vanguard.
School leaders told the Aurora school board on Tuesday that they’re willing to comply with the conditions, and said they are making changes already. Previously, school leaders denied problems with governance, blaming some district concerns on misunderstandings.
Vanguard’s two campuses serve more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 9 percent of its students qualify for special education.
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 Judy Ham, who also serves as the board president of the school.
Since it opened, 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.
One former Vanguard teacher, Audrey Monaco, whose position was cut in December, explained that staff have repeatedly complained to their school board about Ability Connection’s services.
“Every person has a story about human resources,” Monaco said.
She and other employees have complained about unpaid benefits, dropped insurance, and missing documents. Monaco said that in the four years she worked at Vanguard, she had to provide her teaching license to the same Human Resource employee three times.
“I was like, where are you losing my confidential information?” Monaco said. “This was pretty upsetting to me.”
Monaco said she didn’t understand why the non-profit kept getting the contract when services didn’t measure up. However, one of the employees of Abilities Connection was Ham’s daughter, she said. District documents also reference concerns with Ham’s daughter, an employee of Ability Connection.
The Aurora district’s proposed conditions would require Vanguard to evaluate its service provider and to include a review of fair market values and survey responses from the Vanguard staff and families.
Another concern the district lists in its recommendation is about gaps in how the school tracks its finances. An audit, for example, showed money transfers to Ability Connection for about $465,000 that were not approved by the board and did not include itemized receipts. School officials later told the district the money was used for things like furniture, kitchen equipment and background checks, but did not provide documentation.
Munn noted that these issues could eventually affect how students are educated, though he doesn’t think they have yet.
“We think there are some organizational things around, just to be blunt, some adult issues that need to be fixed so that student needs can continue to be met,” Munn said.
Monaco believes the district’s conditions are fair and necessary so that the school can continue to operate.
But others, like Chad Smith, a parent of a 9-year-old student at the school, fear the district is using an “iron fist” to change the school.
“I believe Vanguard East and West was born from ACCO [Ability Connection] and I’m disappointed that you are demanding them to no longer have any influence or some kind of access to what their creation becomes,” Smith said. “I fear a new board will not be Vanguard Classical East or West, it will be whatever this new board chooses it to be. I hope it is still a school that I will want my daughter in.”
District board members seemed skeptical about renewing Vanguard’s charter after having had this same conversation about a year ago. Munn and Brandon Eyre, the district’s attorney who helps write charter contracts, said that because the district had less information a year ago about the problems at Vanguard, the conditions imposed last year weren’t enough to really address the problems, even if the school had complied.
As an example, district officials had asked the school to hire a new executive director. But district staff say they found that the current executive director “was hand-chosen by Judy Ham and presented to the Vanguard Board as the sole option for approval” — evidence that conditions meant to empower the board “failed.”
Aurora board member Dan Jorgensen noted that he has heard only good things about the school’s education and programs.
Board members asked if the district felt confident Vanguard would meet the conditions this time around. District staff explained that if the school doesn’t comply with the conditions by the deadlines set in the contract, the board could close the school at that time, without waiting until the end of the proposed two-year contract.