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COVID-19 outbreak led to canceled meeting between Torchlight Academy leaders and state Charter Board

A Feb. 8 meeting between Raleigh charter operator Don McQueen and the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) to determine the fate of Torchlight Academy was canceled after McQueen contracted COVID-19, according to an email message from an attorney representing the school’s Board of Directors.

Policy Watch submitted a public record request to obtain the letter written by attorney Stephon Bowens and dated Feb. 3. It is addressed to Office of Charter Schools Director Dave Machado.

Machado told Policy Watch on Feb. 8 that the meeting was postponed due to illness of key parties.” He said the meeting will be “rescheduled as soon as circumstances allow.”

Bowens asked that the Feb. 8 meeting be delayed after McQueen informed the Torchlight Board  on Feb. 1 that he tested positive for COVID-19. That was a day after McQueen led an emergency, in-person meeting at the school. Board members, legal counsel and the executive management team for Torchlight Academy LLC, McQueen’s charter management firm attended the meeting, according to the Bowens’ email.  They were all forced to quarantine after learning about McQueen’s positive test, Bowens wrote.

Don McQueen

“Not only has Mr. McQueen tested positive [for COVID-19], but other essential personnel working in close proximity to Mr. McQueen during the week have taken ill while preparing responses to requests for information made by the CSAB and other departments within DPI,” Bowens wrote. “In light of the foregoing, we formally request that the hearing be rescheduled to a later date.”

Bowens said McQueen was “very ill” and that he and other “essential team members” needed to respond to CSAB’s inquiries about the school were unable to appear “in person or by video while the illness runs its course.”

“The [Torchlight] Board understands that this outbreak among senior staff will cause a delay, but assure you the Board and the staff stand ready to answer to the CSAB’s inquiry once it is safe to do so,” Bowens said.

The attorney also explained that COVID-19 “outbreak” played a role in Torchlight’s delay in providing information the CSAB requested in advance of the Feb. 8 meeting.

“The school continues to work diligently to obtain and provide all the information requested and will do so as expeditiously as possible,” Bowens wrote.

As Policy Watch previously reported, the Feb. 8 meeting was going to be an important one for McQueen, who manages Torchlight Academy in Raleigh and Three Rivers Academy in Bertie County. Three Rivers Academy has been ordered closed by the State Board of Education due to students’ low academic performance and fiscal and programmatic concerns.

At Torchlight, McQueen is facing claims that students’ Individualized Education Program (IEPs) documents were altered in a student data management system monitored by the state. The school’s Exceptional Children program was under the leadership of McQueen’s daughter, Shawntrice Andrews when the violations occurred.

The questionable record changes had the effect of making old student IEP’s look like new ones. IEP’s are required to ensure students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services. Generally, educators must meet with parents and submit new data before IEP changes are made.

Torchlight is also being scrutinized for its handling and reporting of grant funds received under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The grant provides federal funding to ensure free and appropriate education is provided to students with special needs at no cost to parents.

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COVID-19 outbreak led to canceled meeting between Torchlight Academy leaders and state Charter Board