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State Board of Education agrees to terminate Torchlight Academy’s charter

After an exhaustive, months-long investigation into management failures at Torchlight Academy, the State Board of Education (SBE) on Thursday voted to terminate its charter agreement with the troubled Raleigh charter school.

The decision could leave the parents and guardians of 600 students in grades K-8 scrambling to find new schools in the fall. Many of Torchlight’s students live in Wake and surrounding counties.

Torchlight’s board of directors can appeal the state board’s decision. It was unclear Thursday whether the school’s board plans to do so.  Stephon Bowens, the board’s attorney, did not return Policy Watch’s phone call before this story was published.

SBE member Amy White said the decision to close the school was a difficult one.

“A thorough investigation from multiple investigators within the [state] Department of Public Instruction, presented information to the CSAB  and this board, and the recommendation will be that we terminate the charter agreement between us and the Northeast Raleigh Academy doing business as Torchlight Academy,” said White, chair of the state board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee.

Don McQueen

Raleigh businessman Don McQueen operates the for-profit education management organization (EMO) — Torchlight Academy School, LLC — that manages Torchlight Academy. In January, the state board terminated its charter agreement with Three Rivers Academy, a Bertie County charter school also managed by McQueen. The state board cited  academic, fiscal and operational shortcomings. The Three Rivers’ board of directors has appealed the ruling.

White read the list of violations found during the state Department of Public Instruction’s investigation. The violations led the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) to recommend terminating Torchlight’s charter.

The violations include:

  • Violations of laws and regulations, including special education laws and federal conflict of interest and self-dealing regulations.
  • Violation of the charter agreement, including failure to produce requested documents, failure to provide adequate oversight and management of the school.
  • Failure to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management, failure to provide the N.C. Department of Public Instruction with required documentation of expenditures of state and federal money and comply with other fiscal requirements.
  • Allowing the ongoing self-dealing and conflicts of interest by the EMO, Torchlight Academy Schools LLC.

As Policy Watch previously reported, claims that students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents were altered in a student data management system monitored by the state triggered the investigation into McQueen’s management of Torchlight and Three Rivers. An IEP ensures students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.

Torchlight’s Exceptional Children program was under the leadership of McQueen’s daughter, Shawntrice Andrews, when the violations occurred. Some charter board members contend Andrews was not qualified to hold the management-level position. Financial records show Don McQueen and Cynthia McQueen, his business partner and wife, signed the contract to hire Andrews at a salary of $65,000 a year. She reportedly remains employed by the school as a special education teacher. It is unclear whether the contract was approved by the school’s Board of Directors.

The school was placed on “probationary compliance status” on Feb. 4 because it had not submitted its financial audit for the past school year. The audit was due by the end of last October. The deadline was extended a month, and the school missed that deadline, too. The audit arrived electronically on Sunday, a day before the charter board made its recommendation to close Torchlight.

The audit found that McQueen used federal coronavirus relief money for numerous unallowable expenses.

The McQueens are employed by the school and own the management company, which is an obvious conflict of interest Torchlight board chairwoman Pamela Banks Lee has acknowledged. “The board will ask McQueen to step down as the executive director of Torchlight and put in place someone who will help us to rectify these compliance issues,” Lee told the state board last week.

Lee couldn’t tell the charter board how much Don or Cynthia McQueen are paid or whether contracts for the two even exist. Financial records show both make $100,000 annually. 

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State Board of Education agrees to terminate Torchlight Academy’s charter