Torchlight leaders and school’s board agree to ‘mutual separation’

Don McQueen and wife Cynthia McQueen no longer lead Torchlight Academy, Stephon Bowens, the attorney for the school’s board of directors confirmed Tuesday.

Bowens told Policy Watch that the “parties have agreed to a mutual separation” from the school the couple has led for more than two decades.

The “separation” comes on the heels of a State Board of Education order earlier this month to close the K-8 school in Raleigh due to concerns about inadequate board oversight, problems in its special education programs, poor management of federal grants and violations of federal conflict of interest and self-dealing regulations.

The Torchlight board has appealed the order to close. A state board panel will be formed to hear the appeal.

Despite the charter revocation, Bowens said the school’s board of directors will hire new leaders, and hope that the state board looks favorably on the moves as it addresses the management concerns found during a lengthy N.C. Department of Public Instruction investigation of the school.

Don McQueen

“We hope to have a more detailed announcement in the very near future,” Bowen said, noting that the board has been in contact with potential school leaders.

Don McQueen had been the school’s executive director, and Cynthia McQueen its principal.  The couple also owns Torchlight Academy Schools, LLC, an educational management organization [EMO] they created in 2015, to manage the school and other state-funded charter schools. The state Charter School Advisory Board raised concerns about the McQueen serving as school employees and owning the management firm. It was unclear Tuesday whether the EMO continues to manage the school. The school paid McQueen nearly $3 million in management fees between 2016 and 2020, financial audits submitted by the school show.

Bowens said the concerns found during the state investigation were not related to academics. He said the Torchlight board hopes the state board’s appeal panel considers that when deciding whether to allow the school to remain open.

“They [the Torchlight board] believes the school has done good work in the community over the past 20 years and have served students that have attended the school very well,’’ Bowens said. “They would hope through the appeal process the State Board of Education will see value in the continuation of the school, going forward.”

The board of Three Rivers Academy, a small charter school in Bertie County managed by McQueen, has also appealed the state board’s recent order to close it after a Department of Public Instruction (DPI) investigation found serious financial and management problems. Three Rivers is also a low-performing school.

Bowens said McQueen’s status at Three Rivers has not changed.

As Policy Watch reported previously, the McQueens have been dogged by claims that students’ Individualized Education Program documents were altered in a student data management system monitored by the state. 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 signed the contract to hire Andrews at a salary of $65,000 a year.

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