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

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.

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

Superintendent Catherine Truitt contends transgender swimmer had unfair advantage

Catherine Truitt

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt has joined the roiling debate over whether female transgender athletes should be allowed to compete against cisgender women.

For Truitt, it’s a hard no.

At issue for the superintendent is transgender swimmer Lia Thomas’ recent domination of the NCAA women’s championship swimming competition. Thomas swims for the University of Pennsylvania.

Truitt said Olympian Emma Weyant, who swims for the University of Virginia, and Virginia Tech University swimmer Reka Gyorgy, who represented her home country of Hungary in the 2016 Olympics, were “unfairly overshadowed”  by Thomas after working hard to compete at the highest level of collegiate athletics.

Weyant finished second to Thomas in the 500 meters swimming championship. Gyorgy missed the cut for the event.

“They should be the ones who are celebrated and honored,” Truitt wrote on her campaign Facebook page.

Gyorgy charges that she would have secured a spot in the finals if Thomas had not been allowed to compete.

“This is my last college meet ever and I feel frustrated,” Gyorgy wrote in a letter to the NCAA. “It feels like that final spot was taken away from me because of the NCAA’s decision to let someone who is not a biological female compete. I know you could say I had the opportunity to swim faster and make the top 16, but this situation makes it a bit different and I can’t help but be angry or sad. It hurts me, my team and other women in the pool.”

Truitt’s empathy for the two swimmers stems from her daughters’ athletic careers. One is a high school track athlete and the other a college track athlete.

“As a mom to daughters who are currently both college and high school athletes that have won the indoor #NorthCarolina pole vault championship and hold several 4A track and field records, this has been difficult to watch unfold,” Truitt wrote. “I’m familiar with the intense hours, training, and commitment my daughters put into their craft so they can compete at their highest levels.”

Truitt, a Republican, joins a growing number of GOP leaders across the country condemning the NCAA’s decision to allow transgender women to compete against cisgender women.

Gina Ciarcia, a congressional candidate in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, told Fox News Digital that female athletes are watching their “hard work and lifelong dreams being ripped away by biological males who aren’t talented enough to be competitive in male sports.”

Last year, North Carolina lawmakers considered a bill to deny transgender women from playing women’s intramural, public school and university sports.

Lawmakers never voted on House Bill 358. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) called the bill a solution in search of a problem.

“A wise legislature does not go out looking for social issues to tap,” Moore told Raleigh’s News & Observer in April.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) allows students to compete consistent with their gender identity. Many recreational sports organizations have adopted inclusive eligibility policies, as well.

Critics of such policies contend transgender women have an unfair advantage when competing against cisgender women because they are faster, stronger and recover faster.

Deanna Adkins

But Dr. Deanna Adkins, a pediatric endocrinologist who helped establish Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care at Duke University Hospital in 2015, told Policy Watch last April that many assumptions about transgender athletes are wrong and defy modern science.

Studies cited in HB 358 to make the case for the sports superiority of men and transgender women even after transition relies on decades-old data when the understanding and science of gender transition was much different, she told Policy Watch.

Today, many transgender young people elect to begin a course of hormone blocking treatment that forestalls puberty, Adkins said. This eases their gender transition by preventing the development of many of the secondary sex characteristics associated with the gender they were assigned at birth — including things such as height, muscle development and bone density — that are often cited as advantages in sports.

Adkins said sports have a positive impact on the mental and physical health of youth.

Our goal is to have healthy young people,” Adkins said. “And sport is all about that. If we are going to make people compete according to their assigned sex at birth, there will be many fewer people who take up sports and adopt those things.”

Community rallies to support Chatham County student victimized by racial bullying

Ashley Palmer (center) Rally photos by Greg Childress

A multi-racial coalition of activists rallied Monday to support a student and his family after a racially motivated bullying incident at J.S Waters School in Goldston.

The student, who is bi-racial, was reportedly sold at a faux slave auction by white classmates during baseball tryouts. J.S. Waters serves children in Kindergarten through eighth grade; students of color are only a small portion of the school’s enrollment.

Ashley Palmer, the child’s mother, called the incident “blatant racism” and questioned why school administrator handed down only a one-day suspension to students responsible for the auction.

“This is not diversity and inclusion. This is not equity. This is racism and deserves to be treated as such,” Palmer said.

A student who pretends to sell a classmate at a slave auction or commits other such acts of racial bullying shouldn’t receive the same punishment as students who commit minor offenses, such as pulling a classmate’s hair, Palmer said.

“It [racial bullying] should have its own designation, reportable at the county level and handled with the significant consequences it deserves,” she said.

Later Monday, many of the 150 or so supporters who first gathered on the grounds of the Pittsboro Presbyterian Church for a news conference, walked the short distance to the Historic Chatham County Courthouse to address their concerns with the Board of Education.

Anthony Jackson (Courtesy photo)

Superintendent Anthony Jackson apologized to every student who has “felt demeaned, disrespected or marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion or disability” while in the district’s care.

“In Chatham County Schools we proudly boast that diversity is our strength and moving forward it will be our intentional focus to ensure that this celebration includes everyone,” Jackson said. “Moving forward my commitment to you is that we will do better.”

Jackson said such behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. “Those who participate in acts that demean any person are acting outside of the values of our school system and will be held accountable using every means at our disposal,” the superintendent said.

The school board approved a series of policy revisions to address such offenses.

Old wounds

Ronda Taylor Bullock

The racial incident at J.S. Waters reopened old racial wounds for some of those who gathered at Pittsboro Presbyterian Church to support the Palmer family.

Ronda Taylor Bullock, a J.S. Waters graduate, and a state anti-racism education leader, recalled a white classmate telling her that she could not attend a birthday party because she was Black.

“Something that’s unique about the experiences now that wasn’t true for me and my experiences when I came through; it sounds like the same toxic behavior is there but this time, there might be personnel upholding this toxic racism,” Bullock said. “That was not the case when I came through, so in some ways, this right now is worse.”

The racism Bullock experienced while a Chatham County student has powered her work. She is the co-founder of we are, a nonprofit organization that provides anti-racism training for children, families and educators.

“How many more Black and Brown children have to go through J.S. Waters with a similar story? Bullock asked. “How many more have to go through, seared, branded like a slave by these harmful memories that we will not forget.? “

Carl Thompson, a former Chatham County Commissioner who is Black, said he was taunted and called racial slurs when he attended a mostly white elementary school before formal school integration occurred in the county. “And when the teacher left the classroom, we knew we were in for it,” Thompson said. “There were three of us [Black students] and man you can believe we got the worst, including threats of violence.”

Parent’s rarely heard about the racial incidents that occurred during that period, he said. A few parents attending Monday’s rally said racism at some schools has become so normalized that their children rarely mention such incidents.

Thompson said he was once asked by a high school classmate why so few Blacks attend class reunions.

“I told her very frankly, and was honest with her, that our experiences were not pleasant with many of our classmates during our high school years and we had no desire to see them as adults, much less enjoy an evening of memories with them,” Thompson said.

Hope and unity

Amid the disappointment many speakers felt as a result of the racial incident at J.S. Waters, there were signs of racial unity and hope of healing.

A large group of Latino students expressed concern about Black classmates and shared their own experiences with racism in county schools. Evelyn Munoz, a Jordan-Matthews High School senior and member of the Hispanic Liaison youth group, said it’s important that students understand how racism has shaped America.

“We’re given facts and dates in history but aren’t shown the everlasting consequences of discrimination in our housing, prison and education systems,” Munoz said. “We can’t be prepared to fight racism if we’re not taught about it.”

Andrew Taylor-Troutman (left) and Larry Neal (right)

Two Chapel Hill pastors — the Rev. Larry Neal, who is Black, of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and the Rev Andrew Taylor-Troutman, who is white, of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church — shared that their congregations meet each Sunday afternoon to have “real talk” about racism, politics and religion.

“The reason we have these talks is because we realize there is no Black heaven, no white heaven,” Neal said.

In an interview with Policy Watch, Taylor- Troutman, who is white, said white parents must be intentional about having conversations with their children about race and racism. “It’s also important to be very clear that you, even as a child, can stand up when you hear someone being made fun of because of the color of their skin or their gender,” Taylor-Troutman said. “You have a voice and you can say that’s not right.”

Torchlight leaders and school’s board agree to ‘mutual separation’

Don McQueen and wife Cynthia McQueen no longer lead Torchlight Academy, Stephon Bowens, the attorney for the school’s board of directors confirmed Tuesday.

Bowens told Policy Watch that the “parties have agreed to a mutual separation” from the school the couple has led for more than two decades.

The “separation” comes on the heels of a State Board of Education order earlier this month to close the K-8 school in Raleigh due to concerns about inadequate board oversight, problems in its special education programs, poor management of federal grants and violations of federal conflict of interest and self-dealing regulations.

The Torchlight board has appealed the order to close. A state board panel will be formed to hear the appeal.

Despite the charter revocation, Bowens said the school’s board of directors will hire new leaders, and hope that the state board looks favorably on the moves as it addresses the management concerns found during a lengthy N.C. Department of Public Instruction investigation of the school.

Don McQueen

“We hope to have a more detailed announcement in the very near future,” Bowen said, noting that the board has been in contact with potential school leaders.

Don McQueen had been the school’s executive director, and Cynthia McQueen its principal.  The couple also owns Torchlight Academy Schools, LLC, an educational management organization [EMO] they created in 2015, to manage the school and other state-funded charter schools. The state Charter School Advisory Board raised concerns about the McQueen serving as school employees and owning the management firm. It was unclear Tuesday whether the EMO continues to manage the school. The school paid McQueen nearly $3 million in management fees between 2016 and 2020, financial audits submitted by the school show.

Bowens said the concerns found during the state investigation were not related to academics. He said the Torchlight board hopes the state board’s appeal panel considers that when deciding whether to allow the school to remain open.

“They [the Torchlight board] believes the school has done good work in the community over the past 20 years and have served students that have attended the school very well,’’ Bowens said. “They would hope through the appeal process the State Board of Education will see value in the continuation of the school, going forward.”

The board of Three Rivers Academy, a small charter school in Bertie County managed by McQueen, has also appealed the state board’s recent order to close it after a Department of Public Instruction (DPI) investigation found serious financial and management problems. Three Rivers is also a low-performing school.

Bowens said McQueen’s status at Three Rivers has not changed.

As Policy Watch reported previously, the McQueens have been dogged by claims that students’ Individualized Education Program documents were altered in a student data management system monitored by the state. An IEP ensures students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.

Torchlight’s Exceptional Children program was under the leadership of McQueen’s daughter, Shawntrice Andrews, when the violations occurred. Some charter board members contend Andrews was not qualified to hold the management-level position. Financial records show Don McQueen and Cynthia McQueen signed the contract to hire Andrews at a salary of $65,000 a year.