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.