Veteran educator Randy Bridges selected to lead Torchlight Academy

Randy Bridges

Torchlight Academy has turned to veteran educator Randy Bridges to lead the troubled charter school while its board of directors appeal a State Board of Education order to close due to numerous fiscal and management failures.

Bridges was most recently interim superintendent of Chatham County Schools. He has also served as superintendent of districts in Alamance and Orange counties, among others.

Dave Machado informed the state board about the school’s new leadership on Wednesday during the board’s monthly meeting. Machado said Bridges became Torchlight’s interim administrator on Monday.

He also noted that Adonis Blue is Torchlight’s elementary school principal and that Melvin Wallace is its middle school principal.

A state board panel is scheduled to hear Torchlight’s appeal on April 19.

The Torchlight board has asked the state board to allow it to “formally” separate from its education management organization (EMO), Torchlight Academy Schools LLC, which is owned by Raleigh businessman Don McQueen. The EMO has managed the schools since 2015.

The Torchlight board has already ended its relationship with the EMO but needs the state board’s approval to bring it into compliance with its charter agreement.

“You approved them to partner with this EMO, they’re out of compliance [with the school’s charter] unless you agree with this separation,” Machado explained.

The state board will vote on the request Thursday.

The Bridges hire comes a month after the Torchlight 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.

Don McQueen

The board also terminated the McQueens daughter, Shawntrice Andrews, director of the school’s exceptional children program, and her husband Aaron Andrews, a teacher’s assistant. It also ended 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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