Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

State workers can use 24-hours of paid community service leave to help ease K-12 staffing shortages

School busesState employees can now use volunteer days to work as substitute teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers under a plan developed by Gov. Roy Cooper.

The governor announced the plan to combat K-12 staff shortages brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases. The strategy is intended to keep students in classrooms for in-person instruction where the experts say they learn best.

“It is critical that we keep children learning in the classroom safely,” Cooper said in a statement. “This policy will encourage state employees to lend a helping hand to our students at a time of severe staffing challenges for our public schools.”

Under the directive, state employees can use paid leave to serve as substitute staff in schools while also keeping any compensation they earn as substitutes. The State Human Resource Commission’s Community Service Leave Policy states that full-time state employees are eligible for 24 hours of paid community service leave each calendar year. The leave may be used by state employees with supervisor approval.

“State employees always step up to help our state in challenging times and this policy gives our talented employees yet another way to serve their communities,” said Barbara Gibson, State Human Resources Director.

Guilford County Superintendent Sharon Contreras applauded the  move.

“This is one more tool we can use to keep our classrooms and schools open for our students,” Contreras said.

Under the updated policy, state employees are also eligible to use community service leave for time spent training to be a substitute teacher, substitute teacher’s assistant or other substitute staff at a school or school district. Community service leave can also be used for other volunteer activities, regardless of compensation.

The policy is effective from Jan. 12 through Feb.15.

Charter School Advisory Board votes against three-year charter renewal for Three Rivers Academy

It is likely a moot point, but the Charter School Advisory Board has recommended that Three Rivers Academy’s charter not be renewed.

The recommendation to not renew Three River’s charter comes less than a week after the State Board ordered the school closed following a state investigation that found academic, fiscal, and governance shortcomings at the low-performing school of about 80 students.

Three Rivers can appeal the board’s decision to close the school.

The troubled K-8 school in Bertie County was among 27 schools whose charters are up for renewal this year. The State Board of Education will consider the recommendations at its February meeting, then vote on them in March.

The Charter Board also recommended no-renewal for UpROAR Leadership Academy in Charlotte due to poor academic performance and financial concerns. The board approved nine schools for 10-year renewals; four for seven-year renewals and 12 for three-year renewals.

The State Board can renew charters for 10 years unless:

  • The charter school has not provided financially sound audits for the immediately preceding three years.
  • The charter school’s student academic outcomes for the immediately preceding three years have not been comparable to the academic outcomes of students in the local school administrative unit in which the charter school is located.
  • The charter school is not substantially in compliance with State law, federal law, the school’s own bylaws, or the provisions set forth in its charter granted by the State Board of Education.

The board may renew a school’s charter for less than 10 years if one of the conditions applies.

Several failures led to the board’s recommendation to close Three Rivers:

  • Data shows that Three Rivers didn’t meet accepted standards of student performance.
  • Three Rivers didn’t provide financial records and audits, which are legally required as part of generally accepted standards of fiscal management.
  • The school violated federal and state law, including special education law.
  • Three Rivers also violated its charter by failing to promptly provide requested information; nor did the school’s governing board properly monitor Three Rivers’ affairs.

Meanwhile, the State Board will hold a special meeting on January 26 to discuss Three River’s sister school, Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy, which is under state scrutiny for abuses in its special education program. Torchlight also faces closure.

Charter operator Don McQueen manages both schools through his charter management firm, Torchlight Academy Schools LLC. 

Three Rivers Academy ordered closed by State Board of Education

Three Rivers Academy was ordered closed by the State Board of Education on Thursday following a lengthy state investigation that found academic, fiscal, and governance shortcomings at the low-performing school of about 80 students in Bertie County.

The State Board’s vote came on the heels of the Charter School Advisory Board’s (CSAB) recommendation that it terminate Three Rivers’ charter.

“When a recommendation comes from the Charter School Advisory Board to the State Board of Education, we take it very seriously,” said State Board member Amy White, chairwoman of the board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee.

Charter School Advisory Board Chairwoman Cheryl Turner said Monday that several failures led to the board’s recommendation to close the school:

  • Data shows that Three Rivers didn’t meet accepted standards of student performance.
  • Three Rivers didn’t provide financial records and audits, which are legally required as part of generally accepted standards of fiscal management.
  • The school violated federal and state law, including special education law.
  • Three Rivers also violated its charter by failing to promptly provide requested information; nor did the school’s governing board properly monitor Three Rivers’ affairs.

Turner told the State Board on Wednesday that Three Rivers has “so many problems” that the Charter Board no longer believed it should “continue to function as a place for students.”

“We felt like the students were disadvantaged to be there,” Turner said.

And a member of the school’s board of director’s admission Monday that he was not aware of the school’s many problems was particularly disturbing, Turner said.

“What that said to us is that the board was not providing oversight at all and the charter goes to the board,” Turner said. “It does not go to the management company. We hold the board responsible for managing that management company.”

Since 1998, 48 charter schools have voluntarily relinquished their charters, one has been assumed by another non-profit board (Three Rivers), 10 have been non-renewed, and 17 charters have been revoked by the State Board.

Don McQueen

Three Rivers is managed by charter operator Don McQueen’s Torchlight Academy Schools LLC. The management firm can appeal the decision to a State Board panel, and then in court if not satisfied with the outcome. McQueen could not be reached for comment Thursday.

McQueen’s flagship school, Torchlight Academy, a K-8 school of more than 500 students in Raleigh, is also under intense state scrutiny due to abuses in its exceptional children program, which serves students with disabilities.

McQueen took over Three Rivers via a contentious assumption as part of a private management group called Global Education Resources. The group dissolved, leaving McQueen to manage it alone.

Three Rivers was previously called Heritage Leadership Academy. The school lost its charter due to low academic performance and non-compliance with charter rules and regulations. It has earned state letter grades of either D or F from 2015-2019.

‘Misuse’ of funds

On Thursday, the State Board announced that Torchlight Academy failed to correct deficiencies found by state monitors in the school’s special education program by the Jan. 5 deadline the board set last month.

It asked the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) to continue its investigation into the program as well as McQueen’s possible “misuse or misappropriation for personal use” of state and federal dollars, including grant money and “potential conflicts of interest” involving Don McQueen and wife Cynthia McQueen acting on behalf or in lieu of the school’s board of directors in ways that “benefitted them personally.”

The State Board ordered all federal funds under McQueen’s control temporarily frozen while the CSAB conducts its investigation. The school will continue to receive state money in monthly installments.

After its investigation, the Charter Board could recommend that Torchlight Academy be closed, or other appropriate sanctions are handed down, White said.

A June discovery of “altered documents” in a software program the state uses to collect, manage and analyze information about exceptional children’s programs, was among the more egregious findings by state program monitors scrutinizing Torchlight.

Monitors previously found that the school failed to comply with federal rules governing the education of children with disabilities.

Similar issues were found at Three Rivers.

Sherry Thomas, director of the Exceptional Children’s Division at the State Department of Public Instruction, told the Charter Board on Monday that monitors could not verify whether students received necessary services.

Thomas said monitors observed virtual instruction for special education services that did not look like it “aligned with what we were seeing in ECATS (Every Child Accountability &Tracking System) as the required service delivery.”

ECATS is the program used to manage and analyze exceptional children’s data.

“That’s a red flag for exceptional children; that what is on paper is not being implemented or what is being implemented is not being properly documented on the student’s schedule or in the student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program),” Thomas said.

A dramatic fall

Thursday’s ruling by the State Board represents a dramatic fall for Don McQueen who on a single day saw one of the charter schools he managed ordered closed and the other hanging on by a thread.

A few years ago, McQueen who is Black, had friends in high places in the state charter school community. Supporters saw him as someone who could bring diversity to a state where most charter management firms are led by whites.

He boasted loudly and often about the academic success of Torchlight students who a few years ago ranked No. 1 in academic growth among all charter schools in the state.

Perhaps emboldened by success at Torchlight, McQueen developed big plans to expand his charter management operation to replicate Torchlight’s academic program.

In 2019, McQueen’s firm was listed as the operator on five charter applications, none of which were approved by CSAB or the State Board.

McQueen had added Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School in Rowan County to his management portfolio. CSAB members expressed concern about him taking on additional schools because he had quickly become embroiled in a management dispute with Essie Mae leaders. Tina Wallace, who chaired the school’s board, accused McQueen of poor fiscal and operational management. The Charter Board eventually revoked the school’s charter after it failed to submit the required financial audits for 2019 and 2020.

In November, concerns about McQueen’s noncompliance with federal regulations derailed the fast-track application to launch Elaine Riddick Charter School in Perquimans County. Riddick founders had chosen McQueen’s management firm to run the school.

The state Charter Board voted down the fast-track application to open the school in August 2022. The board found that McQueen’s noncompliance with federal rules for exceptional children at Torchlight Academy and Three Rivers Academy was significant enough to deny the application.

On Thursday, the State Board upheld the Charter Board’s recommendation to deny Elaine Riddick’s fast-track.

GOP leaders join school funding lawsuit as ‘intervenor-defendants’

State Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have filed a notice of appeal in the court order requiring the state to fund a school improvement plan as part of North Carolina’s long-running Leandro lawsuit.

The notice was filed in Wake County Superior Court on December 8.

The Republican leaders also filed a notice of intervention and will act as “Intervenor-Defendants” in future court proceedings. Berger and Moore contend they have legal standing to intervene on behalf of the General Assembly in their roles as speaker of the House of Representatives and President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

“[t]he Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, as agents of the State, by and through counsel of their choice, including private counsel, shall jointly have the standing to intervene on behalf of the General Assembly as a party in any judicial proceeding challenging a North Carolina statute or provision of the North Carolina Constitution.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-72.2(b),” the two said in their notice to the Court.

Phil Berger

Berger and Moore are represented by lawyers Matthew Tilley, Russ Ferguson and W. Clark Goodman. The three are attorneys in the Charlotte office of Womble Bond Dickinson.

The two legislative leaders have raised questions about whether State Attorney General Josh Stein can effectively represent the state in the school funding case. The notice of intervention and the appeal allows them to join the ongoing litigation in the state’s decades-old school funding lawsuit that could eventually reach the NC Supreme Court.

“The North Carolina Constitution gives the General Assembly the exclusive authority to appropriate funds,” Moore said last month. “Any attempt to circumvent the legislature in this regard would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response.”

Stein issued a memo to the Court that suggested Lee does have the authority to order state lawmakers to transfer $1.7 billion from the treasury to pay for the first two years of the school improvement plan.

“If there exists a conflict between legislation and the Constitution, it is acknowledged that the Court ‘must determine the rights and liabilities or duties of the litigants before it in accordance with the Constitution, because the Constitution is the superior rule of law in that situation,’ ” Stein wrote, citing Green v. Eure (1975).

The NC Court of Appeals, however, blocked Lee’s order, ruling that the judge doesn’t have the authority to order the state to transfer $1.7 billion from its rainy-day account to fund the first two years of the eight-year school improvement plan. The Appeals Court ruling doesn’t impact Lee’s finding that the funding he ordered is needed to help the state meets its constitutional obligation to provide the children of the state with sound basic education.

Lee had ordered State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, State Controller Linda Combs and state Budget Director Charles Perusse to release state money to fund the first two years of a state-wide school improvement plan that grew out of Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The State Supreme Court ruled in that case that  North Carolina was not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide children with sound basic education.

The state’s landmark school funding case was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children with a quality education. The rural school systems did not have tax bases large enough to fund schools at the same level as wealthier urban districts.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Lee hired WestEd, an independent consultant to develop recommendations to improve North Carolina’s public schools. The public school improvement plan before the court is largely based on WestEd’s report. The recommendations include staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher; staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal and identifying the resources to ensure all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among others.

The state budget funds 53% of the school improvement plan this school year but falls to 43% next year, according to Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.

State Board of Education suspends Northampton County Schools superintendent over district performance

Superintendent Pamela Chamblee

The State Board of Education (SBE) suspended Northampton County Schools (NCS) Superintendent Pamela Chamblee on Thursday, citing state law that gives the board authority to do so if a district is perennially low-performing.

The SBE hired veteran educator Del Burns as interim superintendent of the small, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state. The district has fewer than 1,500 students and only eight schools. Burns is a former superintendent of the Wake County Public School System.

Burns’ tenure as interim superintendent is effective immediately, the State Board said in a statement.

“The Northampton County School System has been a low-performing school district for a number of years and remains so despite many opportunities to improve,” the State Board said. “The time has come for the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction to use the authority vested in them to take a more direct role in addressing the needs of the Northampton County Schools by appointing a highly experienced Interim Superintendent who has an impressive track record of helping to lift achievement levels in school districts across the State.”

The Northampton Board of Education immediately called a “special meeting” Thursday afternoon to discuss Chamblee’s suspension.

“We’re committed to working with the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) and the State Board to ensure that our students continue to receive the best education possible,” said Rhonda Taylor, chairwoman of the NCS Board of Education.

Taylor said the board will release a statement after its meeting.

The News-Herald reported that five out of seven district schools are considered low-performing

The State Board cited NC General Statute Sections 115C-105.39 and 115C-274 (b) and (c), which allow it to remove a local superintendent if the superintendent:

  • Fails to cooperate with an assigned DPI State Assistance Team.
  • Takes actions to hinder the ability of the school system to improve its low-performing status.
  • Is in a district in which more than half of the schools are identified as low-performing.

State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis

State Board Chairman Eric Davis noted that the Northampton has been assigned an “assistance team” by NCDPI to help improve student performance. He said the board has received “evidence” that more assertive steps are warranted.

“Our preferred approach is one of collaboration and partnership through the assistance teams with local boards of education and local superintendents,” Davis said. “The State Board also has specific authority under state statutes to provide additional support through more direct intervention in the operation of low-performing districts if the board deems it necessary to improve the instruction in those districts and students’ academic achievement.”

Chamblee has been superintendent of Northampton County Schools since 2019. She was hired as an interim superintendent in April 2019, then as the permanent superintendent in August 2019.

According to The News-Herald, the school board voted 5-2 to fire Chamblee in June 2020. Many of the votes to terminate her contract, however, came from board members completing terms after unsuccessful reelection bids, the paper reported. The new board sworn in two weeks later rescinded Chamblee’s termination, the paper said.