Rowan County charter school placed on ‘allotment restrictions’ amid financial, leadership concerns

Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School

In an odd twist, Essie Mae Kiser Fox Charter School in Rowan County was placed on “allotment restrictions” Monday by the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB).

The sanctions came after school leaders were unable to competently discuss the details of its more than $1 million budget with certainty or adequately explain why a convicted felon was added to the board of directors.

The restriction means Essie Mae can only draw 12 smaller, monthly payments from the state this year instead of the usual three, larger installments.

The financial restrictions seemed strange, coming a week after the SBE, with CSAB’s blessings, granted the school permission to sever ties with its management organization, Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy Schools.

After only one year, officials of the small school in East Spencer with fewer than 130 students asked to end its relationship with Torchlight. They cited poor fiscal and operational management on the part of Torchlight.

The addition of Kenneth Muhammad, formerly Kenneth Fox and reportedly the son of the woman for who the school is named, raised eyebrows among some CSAB members Monday because he is a convicted felon.

(It should be noted that the Foxx in the school’s name is spelled with two “Xs.” The former Kenneth Fox spelled his last name with one X.)

Muhammad, who was the mayor East Spencer at the time of his conviction in 2005, was indicted by a grand jury on 34 federal charges. He eventually pleaded guilty to mail/wire fraud and was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison.

Muhammad’s criminal record was also an issue in 2016 when he and a group of residents sought to open the Paul L. Dunbar charter school in East Spencer.

At that time, CSAB members expressed concern about Muhammad’s criminal record and the group’s relationship with Torchlight because the management firm’s Raleigh school, which bears its name, was considered a low-performing, failing school at the time.

Muhammad’s conviction had gone undetected in 2016 until it was discovered by CSAB member Steven Walker, who is now the board’s vice chairman.

On Monday, Walker said the board found out a couple of weeks ago that Muhammad had joined Essie Mae’s board of directors.

“I’m all for second chances,” Walker said in an interview. “I just didn’t like the fact that during the first go around (2016) that we got submitted a criminal background check that said [Muhammad] had no criminal history.”

When asked why Muhammad was added to the board, Tina Wallace, who chairs the school’s board of directors, said the school reached out to community leaders they thought could help the school stay afloat while it transitioned to self-management.

Wallace said Muhammad was added to the board at the suggestion of another board members. She said his decision to help the school was not contingent on being named a board member.

“The people in our community have been able to move forward from the person’s past and look at the resources that person offers now,” Wallace said. “That person has been able to gain the trust of parents, of community partners, of business organizations within that community and the reason we have been able to add to our enrollment, [increase] our business partners is because of the person [Muhammad] we’re discussing today.”

CSAB Chairman Alex Quigley said the addition of Muhammad to the board is a much smaller problem than the financial and management issues that threaten the school’s survival.

“It’s a death spiral, you don’t have enough kids, you’ve already drawn down a third of your money for the entire year, your [performance] data was not good last year, you’re overstaffed,” Quigley said. “I’m seeing all kinds of red flags here and no one on the board or even your school leader can talk to me confidently about what’s going on.”

Quigley asked the Office of Charter School (OCS) and the state’s legal team to follow up to ensure the school is compliance with State Board of Education (SBE) policy, state law and its charter.

“They’re going to ask you to provide some additional information, and you will provide that right away whether its budgets or contracts, etc.,” Quigley said after CSAB emerged from a closed-door meeting. “You need to work with OCS to make sure we have a full picture of what’s going on financially.”

Don McQueen, president of Torchlight, attended the CSAB meeting to support a new charter he plans to manage, but did not stay for the Essie Mae discussion.

Commentary, Education, News

Teacher: Amid IStation controversy, reading assessments “descended into confusion” across N.C.

A long, messy story keeps getting longer and messier.

Readers of this site and the Charlotte teacher/advocate Justin Parmenter — an occasional Policy Watch contributor — are well aware of the ongoing IStation controversy. The contracting process for a K-3 literacy assessment tool has been thrown into turmoil amid claims that it was mishandled by North Carolina officials like Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.

Parmenter’s been busy on this one, and so has Policy Watch’s Greg Childress, who reported two weeks ago that the company will be offering the tool to teachers for free until the legal questions surrounding the award of their $8.3 million contract are settled.

But Parmenter offered an up-close perspective in a commentary for The Charlotte Observer Monday, contending that, amid the fiasco, literacy testing in the early grades has “descended into confusion” in North Carolina.

Johnson fired shots at the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT) in recent weeks, arguing that the state agency’s stay on the contract was “improper,” but Parmenter says the mess is harming teachers across the state.

From Monday’s commentary:

Istation may be providing its product for free, but it’s free in the sense that a puppy is free. Use of a brand new assessment tool requires a significant investment of time and energy by school personnel. Those things aren’t free.

With the state superintendent indicating that schools should keep using an assessment that another agency put on hold, the vitally important work of assessing our youngest readers has descended into confusion all over the state. Some districts, including Wake and Cabarrus, have contracted directly with Amplify to use the mClass tool on their own dime, and some are using other tools to track student reading progress. But a considerable number of districts are following Johnson’s lead and proceeding as if Istation’s contract will be upheld, training teachers on how to use Istation and assessing students on the tool. The mClass application has been removed from the state’s electronic platform and replaced with Istation. With Johnson’s blessing, Istation assessments are now collecting data on North Carolina students, despite the fact that the company’s contract has been put on hold.

While Johnson can disagree with DIT’s decision, he should know better than to run roughshod over due process. After all, as Johnson reminded everyone last month, he’s not just superintendent, he’s also a lawyer. Personally endorsing and advocating for a product that hasn’t gone through proper procurement to operate in North Carolina — as the free offering of Istation has not — appears to be a deliberate attempt to subvert the decision of a governing authority. North Carolina’s public school families deserve better than this poor leadership and the chaos that surrounds the important work of evaluating our children’s reading abilities.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Legislature, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. In historic ruling, judges strike down North Carolina’s gerrymandered legislative maps

North Carolina voters may have a front row seat over the next two weeks to watch Republican lawmakers correct their redistricting wrong of using extreme partisan gerrymandering to dilute Democrats’ collective voting strength and to entrench their own political party in power.

A panel of three Superior Court judges unanimously struck down 2017 House and Senate maps in a 357-page ruling Tuesday, giving lawmakers two weeks, until Sept. 18, to draw new districts in “full public view” without the use of election data.

They wrote in their ruling that the 2017 House and Senate districts challenged in Common Cause v. Lewis were “significantly tainted in that they unconstitutionally deprive every citizen of the right to elections for members of the General Assembly conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the People.” [Read more…]

Bonus read: First redistricting committee meeting set for Monday after court orders new districts

2. Dan Forest to headline Charlotte event featuring controversial religious right speakers

Lt. Governor to share the stage with speakers who have vilified LGBTQ and Muslim communities, called for plan to “free Christian children from public education.”

Next month, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest will be the special guest at The American Renewal Project’s “North Carolina Renewal Project” event in Charlotte. The roster of speakers for the private conservative Christian event includes:

A pastor who calls the notion of a separation between church and state “cowardice” and those in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality “militant homofascists” bent on turning the U.S. into Sodom.
An author who has railed against Muslims as would-be conquerors and rapists and LGBTQ rights as a first step to America living under Sharia law.
A pastor and Republican politician who has asserted anyone not committed to the U.S. as an explicitly Judeo-Christian nation should leave.[Read more…]

3. Burr, Tillis keep quiet as volume rises in gun control debate

WASHINGTON — Democrats are angling to put gun control at the center of the debate when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill next week, but so far, North Carolina’s senators have stayed relatively quiet on the issue.

After a summer marked by multiple mass shootings across the United States, gun control is gaining more traction in Congress, even among some traditionally reluctant Republicans.

The House Judiciary Committee is slated to debate three gun control proposals next week, and House Democratic leadership has called for immediate action on the issue. Meanwhile, Walmart announced this week it would no longer sell ammunition for assault weapons.[Read more...]

4. The Right’s silly and simplistic attacks on “socialism”

Ever since Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders launched his first campaign for the presidency in 2015, America has found itself immersed in a renewed debate over the concept of “socialism.”

This is, of course, not a new discussion. The word itself goes back at least to the 19th Century and many of the ideas associated with it can be traced to the beginning of human history. What’s more, the “socialist” label has been embraced, attacked, defined and understood by countless leaders, thinkers, activists and political movements in myriad ways.

Today, Sanders may describe himself as a proponent of “democratic socialism,” but what the senator has in mind when he uses such a term clearly bears little resemblance to what many others who have used the “socialist” label were seeking to promote – be they the sclerotic autocrats of the late 20th Century Soviet bloc, the leaders of numerous Third World revolutionary movements, or even the far right “National Socialists” of Nazi Germany and today’s “Heil Trump,” white supremacist movement.[Read more…]

5. To buy out or rebuild? Hurricane Dorian shines a spotlight on the future of NC’s low-lying coast

Forty-eight hours before the arms of Hurricane Dorian locked on the coast, North Topsail Beach in Onslow County sounded like an untuned symphony. The roar of the ocean lay down a musical bed for the shrieks of seagulls, a concussion of hammers and the caterwauls of power saws.

Dozens of homes along and near the oceanfront were already boarded up, their inhabitants headed inland. Stragglers were folding their beach towels, collecting a few more seashells and abandoning their sand castles.“I’m going to hightail it out of here pretty soon,” said one man, scrambling toward the sea to soak in the final minutes of a long holiday.

The hundreds of homes along New River Inlet Road are among the most vulnerable to sea level rise and beach erosion on North Carolina’s southeast coast, according to coastal geologist Rob Young. A report, published by Young and the Program for Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, recommends a targeted buyout of many of these oceanfront homes, which are on “first line” of tropical storm exposure on the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts.

“There are very few buyouts on barrier islands,” Young told a crowd at a coastal resiliency summit in Havelock in June, where he previewed portions of the report. “But it’s a sensible solution.” [Read more…]

6. Another year, another monster storm: Our leaders must act on climate change

I was almost 16 years old in August 1998, when Hurricane Bonnie – traveling at a sluggish six miles per hour, about the speed of a brisk jog – cut up the North Carolina coastline. But my memories of the night it chewed up my hometown are indelible.

The pine trees bent and broke, the power transformer on the corner gave off a mechanical cough and exploded with a shower of incandescent sparks, and the house – which I’d had no call to question the fidelity of before that day – seemed to groan.

How swiftly that heady pre-storm mixture of glee and anticipation – summoned, of course, by school closures and a break in the late summer monotony – turned to fear. [Read more…]

7. North Carolina students show modest gains on the latest round of state tests

North Carolina schools posted modest gains on state tests. More schools met or exceeded growth targets and more schools earned A and B performance grades, according to the state’s annual accountability report released Wednesday by the State Board of Education.

The state’s graduation rate was 86.5 percent, which is a slight improvement over last year’s 86.3 percent rate.

“We are making changes in Raleigh to help our students and teachers – with less time spent on testing and more time for instruction, getting money out of Raleigh and into classrooms where it belongs, and a regional support system better tailored to support schools,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said.

The percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level was 56.8 percent for the 2018-19 school year compared to 56.3 percent the previous year.[Read more…]

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9. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Education, News

Students will take fewer tests under bill signed into law by Gov. Cooper

Students taking a test.

Hurricane Dorian gave many North Carolina school children a day off from school this week.

But Gov. Roy Cooper gave them something better when he signed  Senate Bill 621, into law. The new law reduces the number of state exams students must take.

“North Carolina needs to be able to assess how our schools are performing and how well students are learning,” Cooper said. “A reasonable assessment system that gives teachers and parents accurate information without sacrificing accountability should help children learn without over testing.”

SB 621, also known as the “Testing Reduction Act of 2019” eliminates more than 20 state exams, including the N.C. Final Exams. Those exams, taken mostly by high school students, were used to evaluate teacher performance.

The passage of SB 621 is a win for North Carolina advocates who have pushed for testing reform, but groups such as N.C. Families for Testing Reform contend it doesn’t go far enough

“This bill begins to reduce the burden on end-of-year testing for older children, but doesn’t do enough to support young children, who are tested more frequently, and are the most vulnerable to the emotional stress of testing,” the testing reform group said in a statement Friday.

Tow major criticism of over-testing is that it interrupts instruction time and that many of the scores are  used to rank schools and to evaluate teachers.

“The fact is that much of the testing that is being done is used for the purpose of grading schools and teachers (like the recent released School Performance letter grades (A-F) for schools) and NOT for giving children the tools they need for learning, which is something we hope will continue to be addressed by the Legislature and DPI.”

The elimination of the N.C. Final Exams raises new questions about how the state will gather data in the future to evaluate its teachers.

SB 621 calls for the State Board of Education (SBE) and the Department of Public Instruction to submit to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee a plan on how the state will collect data to evaluate teacher performance and professional growth moving forward.

SBE members J.B. Buxton told his colleagues at the board’s business meeting Thursday that North Carolina will have to figure out how to get “growth data for teachers without having growth data for students.”



State Board of Education approves charter school’s request to terminate management agreement with Torchlight

Without comment, the State Board of Education (SBE) on Thursday approved a request by Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School (Essie Mae) to terminate its management agreement with Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy Schools.

Officials of the small charter school in Rowan County asked for to end its relationship with Torchlight after only one year due to poor fiscal and operational management.

Don McQueen, president of Torchlight, did not appear at Thursday’s SBE business meeting to dispute the school’s claim.

Dave Machado told SBE members Thursday that he is confident Essie Mae leaders can manage the school without Torchlight.

Strangely enough, Essie Mae’s criticism of Torchlight hasn’t deterred six new schools seeking state charters from doing business with the management firm.

Torchlight is listed as the management organization on five new charter school applications received by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction ahead of the Aug, 26 deadline.

It’s also listed as the management firm for New Generation Charter Academy in Edgecombe County. The school is one of five seeking fast-track approval to open next year.

McQueen told Policy Watch this week that he expects lots of scrutiny when the Charter School Advisory Board begins to review new charter school applications.

Torchlight already manages three charters, including a school in Raleigh that bears its name.