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 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.

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.”