The Utah Military Academy was placed on warning status Thursday —and its director resigned — after a whistleblower reported that the school was operating “with questionable ethical practices,” including inflating a cadet’s grades to get him into a prestigious Army training program.
The allegations about the charter school came three months ago through an anonymous tip line. The caller said he was a former employee of the academy and was asked to white out dates on business records, forge signatures and make out checks to former staff members so they would keep quiet about wrongdoing. He also accused the school of netting several large contracts illegally.
A state oversight coordinator investigated and found the concerns credible. The Utah Charter School Board issued its reprimand this week in response, the latest in a recent string of crackdowns.
“Together, these deficiencies point to a lack of internal controls, a lax culture and poor management,” said Michael Clark, who oversaw the investigation.
The Utah Military Academy opened about six years ago and has two campuses: one at Camp Williams in Lehi and the other at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden. It teaches students in 7th through 12th grades — who are referred to as cadets — in a strict environment based on military protocols and discipline.
The school received a first notice of concern in September, shortly after the caller raised flags. The initial letter focused on the charter having low funds and continuing to operate an unapproved online program called “Viper Flight” that the charter school board expressly told the military academy to discontinue last year.
A second notice sent in November said more concerns had been uncovered, including the “irregularities” in documentation and signatures — specifically with papers for special education — and the changes to the student’s grades, without his permission, so he could get into West Point Academy in New York.
Board members for the Utah Military Academy told the state charter school board Thursday during a public hearing that they have made and will continue to make significant changes to address the issues. That included putting the school’s executive director, Matt Throckmorton, on administrative leave.
Shortly after the hearing, though, he resigned.
Throckmorton, a former state lawmaker, could not be reached for comment Friday. But charter school board members put most of the blame on him.
“This was really a failure of your administration,” said charter board Chairwoman Kristin Elinkowski.
The academy’s board members, meanwhile, said they will perform more checks on the school to make sure funds are being properly spent and cash on hand doesn’t dip below allowable levels. Grades changes, any major purchases and bid agreements will all need approval by the school’s board. The academy will be required to hold monthly budget meetings. All staff will be trained on updated policies. And no severance packages will be awarded without sign off.
“We take this very, very seriously,” said Vickie McCall, representing the academy with four other members. “We want those cadets to get the best possible education that they can.”
The school was originally slated for probation. But the charter board voted unanimously, instead, for “warning status” because the academy is in the process of bonding for its facilities and a stronger sanction could have upended that.
“I think warning is an extremely kind motion considering the gravity of the deficiencies,” Elinkowski commented.
As a condition, the military academy will be required to report back to the charter board next month to show more improvements being made. It will also have to make regular updates on its progress.
Vice Chairwoman DeLaina Tonks said she would typically vote for probation in such a situation but feels comfortable with the changes the school is already making. But, she warned, if they get bond money and fail to correct, more serious action — such as closure — would be a possibility.
“We’re going to be involved very heavily until we know everything is on track,” responded Curt Oda, a board member at the academy and a former Utah lawmaker. “We’re going to make this work. You have our personal word on all of that.”
He said the bond, if approved, would “solve 80% of the problems” with funding the school currently faces, as well as address growing needs with their more than 1,000 students.
Unlike with other schools the charter board has recently closed — including nearby Capstone Classical Academy in Pleasant View — members say they felt confident that because of the military academy’s high enrollment that the issues would be resolved. But it did make similar mistakes as the American International School of Utah, which shut its doors this summer, after also failing to properly document special education funding.
The military academy is managed by Charter Solutions, a private company owned by state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore. The whistleblower worked for that entity.