Tony Helton, one of North Carolina’s most influential charter school leaders, hosted a July fundraiser at his home for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest that was reportedly attended by an evangelical minister whose Rutherford County church has been accused of covering up sexual molestation and violent attempts to “purify” members of its congregation.
Policy Watch confirmed the reception was hosted at Helton’s Forest City home. The event, according to a News & Observer report Thursday, drew Robin Webster, a leader in Word of Faith Fellowship in Rutherford County and daughter of church founder Jane Whaley.
A February report from the Associated Press included detailed accounts from former church members who alleged Word of Faith sought to drive demons from them by beating and choking them.
According to that report, 43 former members detailed shocking violence at the evangelical church, as well as violence within the church’s K-12 private school, Word of Faith Christian School.
The report included allegations that they slapped, choked, punch, shook or threw congregants through walls in order to “purify” them, a tactic they called “blasting” prayer. Reported victims included children, toddlers and infants.
The Associated Press also detailed accusations of sexual molestation covered up by church leadership. Additionally, church leaders are being sued by a former member who said Word of Faith ministers attempted to beat the “homosexual demons” out of him.
It’s unclear what, if any, connection Helton has to the church. A Forest spokesman told the N&O Thursday that attendees were notified by the host, and by Forest’s campaign email list and Facebook page.
The reception for Forest, who is widely expected to be a Republican front-runner for governor in 2020, asked attendees to contribute between $50 and $2,500. Forest is a social conservative, a Christian and an outspoken supporter of school choice expansion in North Carolina.
Helton, as CEO of the growing TeamCFA charter network, is one of the most powerful charter school leaders in North Carolina. The Charlotte-based network runs 13 schools in the state, as well as charters in Arizona and Indiana.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s largest advocacy organization for public school teachers, called the connection to Forest “very, very concerning” Friday.
“It’s always very concerning when someone who wants to run the state is colluding with someone with such extreme values,” said Jewell.
Jewell also said Helton’s involvement in the reception should be alarming considering his tangled influence in the state’s growing school choice movement.
A former leader at TeamCFA schools Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County and Brevard Academy in Transylvania County, Helton rose to a top position in 2014 at the network, which was founded by wealthy Oregon school choice booster John Bryan.
Bryan pushed lawmakers last year to adopt a controversial charter takeover of low-performing schools dubbed the Innovative School District. Helton is now among a group of influential school choice backers hoping to win a state contract for the takeover district. Helton’s group, calling itself Achievement for All Children, signaled their intent to apply last month.
“It’s very troubling and dangerous that the same kind of discriminatory and dangerous actions and rhetoric alleged against this church and its leaders could be forced upon a public school setting through a charter takeover scheme if this company is chosen,” Jewell said. “Public schools should be welcoming and inclusive so that all students can learn in a safe environment.”
Until recently, Helton was also a member of the state’s Charter Schools Advisory Board, a panel that recommends policies and fields charter openings and closings for the State Board of Education.
Helton stepped down from the charter board this month, reportedly to focus on his TeamCFA duties. His involvement on the charter board and a group assuming management in one troubled Charlotte charter spurred questions about a potential conflict of interest this year.
Policy Watch has reported before on questions about TeamCFA’s Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, including complaints about the publicly-funded school’s annual diaper drive for a local anti-abortion group and lunchtime prayers.
Officials with TeamCFA did not respond Friday morning to multiple Policy Watch inquiries about the Forest City fundraiser for Forest. Meanwhile, Heather Whillier, the Forest campaign worker named on the invitation for the lieutenant governor’s reception, declined comment.