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'I sure hope we weren't wrong': Utah school board questions decision to not immediately shut down Vineyard charter school

Published March 3, 2017 8:56 am

Education • Franklin Discovery Academy is on probation amid accusations of impropriety.
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The Utah Board of Education had its first opportunity on Thursday to weigh in on the allegations of misconduct at Franklin Discovery Academy.

The Vineyard charter school was given probation over the weekend by the state charter school board in response to concerns over student safety, financial impropriety and teacher licensing.

But at least one school board member questioned why Franklin Discovery was given until June to address those issues, rather than being immediately shut down.

"If there are concerns for kids' safety," Laura Belnap said, "why continue [operating] even for one more minute?"

Dean Brockbank, a member of the state charter school board, said the charter board acted quickly to review and address the status of Franklin Discovery, holding three meetings between Thursday and Saturday last week and sending school board staff to the Vineyard campus to collect information.

After hearing the reports from staff and explanations from Franklin Discovery representatives, Brockbank said he and other charter board members were satisfied that students would not be endangered by returning to the school Monday morning.

"I sure hope we weren't wrong," Brockbank said.

During those weekend meetings, Board of Education staff members described witnessing disarray at Franklin Discovery, which utilizes an individualized learning model: children were frequently left unattended or undirected, instructional time was minimal, and safety and security hazards were abundant.

Franklin Discovery's chairwoman and directors also acknowledged that an employee had been fired for grooming a student for a sexual relationship, and that employee background checks had typically been conducted after an individual was hired.

The school's former director, Karl Bowman, had also been asked to resign, chairwoman Jen Price said, because he waited nine days to take action against the employee after learning of the grooming allegations.

Several Utah Board of Education members asked its staff for clarification on what authority they have over charter schools, which are public schools but operate independent of school districts. They were told that charters can be revoked by their authorizer, in this case the state charter school board, and that the Utah Board of Education has the ability under certain circumstances to restrict or cut off the flow of funding to public schools.

"I still feel handcuffed," Belnap said.

Board of Education member Carol Lear expressed concern over the division of authority between the Utah Board of Education and state charter school board. She said Franklin Discovery should be held to the same standard as any other public school facing similar allegations.

"These are our students," Lear said. "These are public education students for whom we have responsibility."

She also asked whether the school had the advisement of an attorney, and was told by the state charter school board's executive director, Jennifer Lambert, that Joel Wright, a member of the Utah Board of Education, was working with the school.

Wright was not in the room at the time, but said later he plans to recuse himself from any future action regarding Franklin Discovery Academy.

Price said Thursday that it is frustrating that unconfirmed accusations are being presented to the school board as vetted facts.

Roughly 20 students have left the school since it was placed under probation, Price said, but more than 450 children and their families support the school and have chosen to stay.

"If they took the time to investigate they would see that half of these things, more than that, aren't true," Price said.

But Bowman, who served as school director from November until mid-February, said he was told that the governing board appreciated his work, but that he wasn't a match for the school.

Asked about the school's probation status, Bowman said Franklin Discovery would likely benefit from the state charter school board being more involved in a supervisory role.

"I'm just sad that the board didn't see that what I was doing was what they wanted," Bowman said.

He said he was unaware of the grooming allegations against the fired employee, and disagreed with how the events leading up to his resignation were portrayed by Price.

"The employee was let go because of a directive from me that he didn't follow," Bowman said.

Price confirmed that the board had not given details to Bowman about his resignation. But she reiterated her description of Bowman learning of the allegations and failing to take action.

"I guess it's up to him to make whatever statements he wants," Price said. "I, and the school, stand by [our] statement."

She also said that while she and board representatives had used the word "grooming" to describe the fired employee's behavior, no crime was committed and there was no evidence of criminal intent.

"We felt it was a crossing of professional boundaries," Price said.


Twitter: @bjaminwood




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