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 Board of Education panel rejects Torchlight Academy’s attempt to keep school from closing

The State Board of Education has ordered Torchlight Academy in Raleigh to close due to mismanagement.

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.”

Amy White

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.

Randy Bridges

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.

Don McQueen

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.

State audit finds numerous financial violations at former Bridges Academy in Wilkes County

Bridges Academy

The Office of the State Auditor found that Bridges Academy in Wilkes County falsified student enrollment records, misused charter school money to support a preschool and failed to submit required tax forms in 2019.

State Auditor Beth Wood released the audit of the K-8 school on Wednesday. The school relinquished its charter last summer amid allegations of financial irregularities and what its own board of directors described as “insurmountable financial challenges.”

Beth Wood

The state auditor will turn her office’s findings over to the District Attorney’s Office in Prosecutorial District 34. The district includes all of Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes and Yadkin counties. The findings will also be shared with the Internal Revenue Service and the North Carolina Department of Revenue.

The audit shows that for the 2020-21 school year, Bridges Academy’s director and finance officer falsified student enrollment records by reporting 72 students who were not enrolled in the schools.

The two admitted that they began inflating enrollment eight years earlier, mainly in early grades to avoid detection. Students in grades K-2 aren’t required to take state tests and don’t show up on testing rosters.

Charter schools are public schools but free of many of the rules and regulations traditional public schools must follow. State and federal dollars follow students. Enrollment determines the amount of money a school receives.

Bridges Academy was also found to have used $78,576 in state money intended for the charter school to support the operations of a preschool, despite charging tuition for children to attend the preschool.

“The charter school funding provided by DPI was intended for the education of kindergarten through eighth grade students,” the audit said. “However, at least $78,576 of the funding was used for the operation of the preschool to close the gap between the revenues and expenses.”

In 2019 and 2020, Bridges also failed to report nearly $500,000 in payments to the director, instructional and support staff, the audit found.

That means the IRS likely collected fewer taxes from the organization than was owed.

“The failure to provide and submit accurate tax information appeared to be an effort by Bridges Academy to assist the contractors in avoiding tax and retirement benefit implications while also securing staffing resources for the school,” the audit said.

Here are key recommendations made by the Office of the State Auditor:

  • DPI should seek repayment of $404,971 from Bridges Academy, or the Receiver, for the state funds received as a result of the falsified student enrollment records.
  • DPI should consider reviewing the enrollment history of Bridges Academy and determine if the school received funding for falsified students in previous years.
  • DPI should seek repayment of $78,576 from Bridges Academy, or the Receiver, for state charter school funds that were utilized to support the preschool.
  • Bridges Academy, or the Receiver, should seek the assistance of a Certified Public Accountant to prepare and file the required 1099 tax forms for contractors (director, instructional, and support staff).

The state Auditor’s Office launched its investigation after receiving six allegations through its Hotline concerning Bridges Academy.

Bridges Educational Foundation, Inc., opened the school in 1997.  The
Foundation opened the preschool for children ages two through five years old in 2020.

N.C . Department of Public Instruction to lose Leandro strategist to verdant greens of N.C. Central University

Catherine Edmonds

After less than 18 months on the job, Catherine Edmonds, the state’s deputy superintendent of the Office of Equity, is leaving the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) to become chief of staff at N.C. Central University (NCCU) in Durham.

NCCU announced the hire last week. Edmonds will begin her new job on May 1.

With Edmonds’ departure, NCDPI loses its second chief Leandro strategist in less than four months. Edmonds absorbed the duties of the executive director of Leandro Implementation after Beverly Emory retired on Dec. 31.

Edmonds is preparing to leave NCDPI as the state’s landmark school-funding lawsuit, Leandro v. State of North Carolina, is winding its way through the courts again. The State Supreme Court has asked the judge overseeing the case to determine how much of the first two years of a $1.7 billion comprehensive remedial plan is covered in the state budget. Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson is expected to submit his findings this week.

Emory’s position was created to enact the recommendations of the WestEd report. WestEd is an independent consultant hired by the state to develop recommendations to improve North Carolina’s public schools. The report stems from the Leandro case brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children with sound basic education as mandated in the state Constitution.

NCDPI spokeswoman Blair Rhoades said Edmonds’ replacement has not been named.

Edmonds currently leads an office created by State Superintendent Catherine Truitt to ensure that the state’s education systems approach all decisions through an equity lens.  At NCCU, she will direct change management initiatives and oversee project management and program development on behalf of NCCU Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye. NCCU is a historically Black college with a little more than 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Edmonds has nearly 30 years of experience in public education in North Carolina at both the K-12 and higher education levels. Before joining the Truitt administration, she served as superintendent for Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools.

She has also served as the director of educational leadership and development and director of the NC Principal Fellows Program at the University of North Carolina System. Edmonds holds a bachelor of science degree in mathematics education from NC A&T University, a master of administration and supervision from N.C. State University and a doctorate in educational leadership from NCSU.

State Board of Education has ordered the ‘immediate’ closure of troubled Three Rivers Academy

The State Board of Education ordered Three Rivers Academy in Bertie County to close Friday, April 8.

In a stunning move last week, the State Board of Education (SBE) ordered the “immediate” closure of Three Rivers Academy charter school, contending its continued operation poses an “immediate threat” to students, school employees and the general public.

The move sends the parents of a reported 85 students attending the low-performing school in Bertie County scrambling to find new schools just weeks before the school year ends. Students from multiple counties attend the school.

“Folks it’s important to know that we as a state board never relish the idea of closing a school but if forced to do so we would prefer to do that at the end of the school year,” said SBE member Amy White, chairwoman of the state board’s Education Innovation and Charter School Committee.

The state board voted to revoke Three Rivers’ charter in January following a lengthy state investigation that found academic, fiscal, and governance shortcomings.

White didn’t give specifics about the “immediate threat” or what led the board to order the school to close Friday instead of at the end of the school year.

She offered this explanation during a state board meeting Friday afternoon:

State Board of Education member Amy White

“Today the state board has found that the immediate closure is necessary to protect the educational needs, welfare and rights of students currently enrolled at Three Rivers Academy and to safeguard the public and financial assets, which are in the school’s possession,” White said, explaining that state law gives the board the authority to close a school under those circumstances.

Bertie County Schools will become Three Rivers’ “fiscal agent,”  White said, and will oversee school finances and close out any remaining business the school has including ensuring that staff, teachers and vendors are paid.

“All monies, all documents, records, computers, buses, automobiles all other assets purchased with public funds become the property of the Bertie County Schools,” White said.

Bertie County Schools Superintendent Otis Smallwood told Policy Watch in January that the district pays for about 20 students who attend Three Rivers. He said the small, rural district of nearly 2,000 students could easily absorb local students attending the school if it closes.

Don McQueen

Three Rivers is managed by Torchlight Academy Schools, LLC, which is owned and operated by embattled Raleigh businessman Don McQueen. The for-profit Education Management Organization (EMO) also managed Torchlight Academy in Raleigh. The state board also revoked that school’s charter and ordered it to close at the end of the school year due to fiscal and governance concerns and missteps in the school’s special education program. Torchlight Academy’s board of directors has appealed the charter revocation. The state board will hear the appeal later this month.

A former Three Rivers teacher told Policy Watch in January that McQueen padded enrollment numbers, paid families so students would attend class, and took other extreme measures to ensure state per-pupil funds kept flowing to the troubled charter school. The teacher’s allegations were corroborated by a former principal of the school, Hans Lassiter. Lassiter worked at the controversial Bertie County charter school during the first half of the 2020-21 school year. 

Meanwhile, the state board agreed Friday to allow Torchlight Academy to “formally” cut ties with McQueen’s EMO. That brings the school into compliance with charter agreement, which called for it to be managed by McQueen’s organization.

The Torchlight board hired veteran educator Randy Bridges to lead the school while its works through the appeal process. 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.

As Policy Watch previously reported, 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.

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.

Most applications to serve on state Parent Advisory Commission tossed because they were incomplete

Parents rally at a Johnston County school board meeting last summer to protest mask mandate.

Nearly 80% of applications submitted by parents hoping to serve on a new state K-12 Parent Advisory Commission have been rejected because they were incomplete, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said this week.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) received about 3,500 applications but only 693 will be considered, Truitt said. An NCDPI committee before will trim the list to 150 candidates before the final 48 are chosen, she said.

“If an application was incomplete, they were thrown out,” Truitt told members of the State Board of Education during its monthly meeting. “Incomplete could range from anything from they didn’t complete all of the fields to they did not provide a reference.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Truitt noted that a letter of reference was not required. Candidates were only asked to provide the name and phone number of the person serving as a reference.

Once the list is narrowed to 150, Truitt said she will join the selection committee to help choose the final 48.

Truitt has said the committee will help to “elevate the voice of parents in students’ education.”

The commission comes as school boards and school leaders across the state and nation face unprecedented criticism over facemask mandates and what is taught in schools about the nation’s racial history. Books with LGBTQ+ themes have also become targets of conservative parents and politicians who contend they are inappropriate for young children.

Truitt’s parent group has sparked controversy. Critics contend parents of home-schooled and private school children will be overrepresented on the panel, receiving one-third of seats even though children who are home-schooled or attend private school make up a small portion of school children. Only 33% of seats are guaranteed to parents of traditional public school students even though those students are 78% of North Carolina’s schoolchildren.

The 48-member advisory board will include six parents or guardians from each of the state’s eight educational regions. The regional representation will include parents from two traditional public schools, one charter public school, one home school, one private school and one at-large public-school member from the largest county in each region, including Buncombe, Catawba, Cumberland, Guilford, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Pitt, Wake.

Critics have also complained that the selection process doesn’t ensure that the commission will be racially balanced. A little more than 50% of children attending the state’s traditional public schools are students of color.

“My concern is about the inclusion of all parents, particularly those who are least likely to have a voice in the system,” State Board member James Ford said last month.

Responding to Ford’s questions about the commission this week, Truitt said the selection committee will begin to discuss “representation and voice” after the applicant pool has been narrowed to 150.

“Do we have a qualified candidate from this region who is a parent of someone with special needs, for example,” Truitt said.