A State Board of Education panel agreed Wednesday to recommend that Torchlight Academy in Raleigh close for good on June 30.
Members of the state board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee (EICS) decision followed an impassioned push by Torchlight leaders to keep the K-8 school of roughly 550 students from closing.
The state board voted in March to revoke the school’s charter after numerous financial and governance shortcomings surfaced during an N. C. Department of Public Instruction investigation. Most issues stemmed from the school’s relationship with Raleigh businessman Don McQueen and his education management organization (EMO), Torchlight Academy Schools LLC. The school’s board of directors has also been criticized for poor oversight.
Torchlight’s board appealed the decision to close the school but withdrew it in favor of an informal hearing with the EICS committee.
“This mess didn’t happen in a day,” said Stephon Bowens, the attorney for the school’s board. “All we’re asking is to give us an opportunity to clean it up. We can do it.”
After discussing the request in a closed session, EICS chairwoman Amy White explained that the panel still has too many concerns to reverse the state board’s earlier decision.
White shared those concerns, which include:
- Ongoing concerns regarding the current and future financial health of the school.
- Continued concerns about the board of directors’ ability to provide oversight and leadership necessary to correct the contractual, education and fiscal mismanagement.
- Significant concerns regarding the school’s ability to meet and serve the needs of exceptional children for both compensatory education and daily instructional delivery.
The state board will consider the recommendation when it meets next week.
Last month, Torchlight’s board hired veteran educator Randy Bridges to run the school after parting ways with McQueen, who also served as the school’s executive director.
White thanked Bridges for his commitment to manage the school through the end of the school year.
“Because of Dr. [Randy] Bridges’ leadership, we feel comfortable working together to minimize the disruption of the students currently attending Northeast Raleigh Academy (Torchlight) during the rest of the academic year,” White said.
Before the EICS’s ruling, Bridges told the committee that only 10 of the 153 families that responded to a survey question about whether they planned to return to the school next fall, said they would not. He said many families had already started the application process, and enrollment is expected to reach 500 next school year.
“We feel confident that if the decision is made for our school to remain open, the students and the parents will return,” Bridges said.
Acknowledging that the board of directors needs new blood, Bowens said a plan is in place to select new board members capable of providing better school oversight. Within one year, all eight board members would be replaced, he said.
Bowens also revealed growing tension between the Torchlight board and McQueen, who along with Cynthia McQueen, his wife, business partner and former Torchlight principal, have been the public faces of the school for nearly two decades.
He told the EICS panel that the McQueens have repeatedly ignored the board’s requests for school records.
“I can tell you, and it may not be a surprise, that in the very near future, if the information is not provided, we will be in court seeking the information and seeking a court to require that that information is provided,” Bowens said.
A legal fight with the McQueens is complicated by the fact that they own the building that houses the elementary school. If the state board allowed the school to stay in business, McQueen could force the school out and leave Torchlight leaders with only four months to find a new home.
“Finding a location to locate an elementary school in a four-month period is going to be incredibly daunting,” White said.
The Torchlight board ended its relationship with the McQueens after NCDPI officials uncovered numerous fiscal and governance issues at the school, including serious misconduct in its special education program, which was led by the McQueens’ daughter, Shawntrice Andrews.
State records show 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.
Sherry Thomas, director of the Exception Children Division at NCDPI, told the EICS panel that she remains concerned about the school’s ability to provide students with needed services, despite efforts to correct problems in the program.
“I still don’t have confidence that there is a strong understanding and a strong director in the school of special education that will help correct the practices, and that’s the problem,” Thomas said. “It’s not fixing a piece of paper.”
The school’s board also fired Andrews’ husband, Aaron Andrews, who was listed on the school’s staff roster as 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.
NCDPI 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.
Torchlight’s audits show that the 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.
Bowens said the board is working hard to “recapture” public money the McQueens’ misspent.
“There is a real possibility there might be litigation,” Bowens said.