Torchlight Academy’s board wants formal break from management firm

“In the best interest of the school,” the Torchlight Academy board of directors has requested that the State Board of Education (SBE) allow it to amend its charter to “formally” part ways with charter operator Don McQueen.

The board of the troubled school, which is facing closure due to numerous fiscal and management failures, requested the change in a March 21 letter to state board attorney Allison Schaffer. The K-8 charter school in Raleigh has been managed by McQueen’s education management organization (EMO), Torchlight Academy Schools LLC, since 2015.

“The Charter Agreement executed by the School contemplated an extended ongoing relationship with the EMO,” wrote Stephon Bowens, the Torchlight board attorney. “However, in light of recent events the Board of Directors for the School have deemed the ongoing relationship with the EMO to no longer be in the best interests of the School.”

Don McQueen

The state board is scheduled to take up the request at its April 6-7 meeting. Following the recommendation of the Charter School Advisory Board, the state board earlier this month voted to revoke the school’s charter due to concerns about its special education program and management of federal grants; lax oversight by the Torchlight board and mismanagement of federal and state dollars by McQueen.

It is unclear what, if any, impact the move to separate from McQueen’s EMO will have on the state board’s decision to revoke Torchlight’s charter. The school has appealed the revocation.

The school’s board apparently thinks, however, that a break with McQueen and reverting to “independent operation as it had prior to the 2015-2016 academic school year” will persuade the state board to allow the school to remain open.

“The School is making great strides to address the concerns raised by the SBE and approval of this request is one among many changes that will allow the School to move forward in the future,” Bowens wrote.

The Torchlight board had been looking for new leadership to replace the McQueens. Policy Watch could not confirm whether a new executive director and principal have been hired.

Minutes from a March 7 emergency Zoom meeting of the Torchlight board show the board quickly moving to put distance between the school and McQueen and several members of McQueen’s family who were employed by Torchlight.

After emerging from a closed session, the board unanimously agreed to accept McQueen’s resignation as executive director of the school and to “terminate the employment” of McQueen’s wife, Cynthia McQueen who was principal and superintendent of Torchlight.

The board also terminated McQueens daughter, Shawntrice Andrews, director of the school’s exceptional children program, and her husband Aaron Andrews, a teacher’s assistant. It also terminated a lucrative janitorial contract the McQueens dealt their son-in-law to clean a portion of the school used for a federally funded after-school program.

N.C. Department of Public Instruction records show that the McQueens paid their son-in-law $20,000 a month to clean a portion of the school being used by the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Center program, Policy Watch previously reported. Such centers provide children in high-poverty, low-performing schools academic help during non-school hours. Aaron Andrews’ custodial firm, Luv Lee Sanitation, was responsible for cleaning the six classrooms and common areas used exclusively by the program. The contract was signed by Cynthia McQueen.

State records show Shawntrice Andrews altered students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents in a student data management system monitored by the state, which is a violation of federal law. An IEP ensures students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.

Torchlight’s audits show that McQueens received $1.8 million in management fees in 2016 and 2017, which were by far the two most profitable years. The fee dropped dramatically in subsequent years to $340,000 in 2018, $357,000 in 2019, $347,125 in 2020, and $365,922 in 2021.

A recent audit shows that the McQueens, who were both employed by the school and owned the firm that managed it, gave themselves hefty raises. Each was paid $160,000 during the 2020-21 school year, a $60,000 increase over the $100,000 each reportedly received the year before

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