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

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.

State Senate’s attempt to override veto of ‘Free the Smiles Act’ fails

Senate Republicans could not muster the three-fifths majority it needed Wednesday to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill allowing parents to decide whether children wear face masks in schools.

The veto override of Senate Bill 173, also known as the “Free the Smiles Act,” failed on a 27-22 vote. The Senate needed 29 of the 49 votes present to move the bill to the House. Three-fifths of that chamber is also needed to override a veto.

Every Senate Democrat voted against the veto override, including two who had supported the bill that won bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Sen. Ben Clark, (D-Cumberland) and Sen. Kirk deViere (D-Cumberland), previously voted in favor of the bill.

The Raleigh News & Observer reported Wednesday that Cooper has endorsed deViere’s primary opponent, Val Applewhite a former Fayetteville City Council member, in the May 17 race.

Cooper said that Applewhite “isn’t afraid to stand up to Right Win Republicans, the paper reported.

The bill was moved to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate at Sen. Bill Rabon’s, (R-Brunswick), request.

Sen. Jay J. Chaudhuri

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, (D-Wake), said the law is not needed, explaining that 110 of 115 school districts have already made masks optional.

“Today, with school mask mandates virtually gone, we’re going to vote on a bill about mask mandates and that doesn’t make any sense,” Chaudhuri said. “Today’s vote is yet another attempt by the governing majority to politicize masks and push for more extreme legislative overreach.”

He noted that Thursday marks the first anniversary of when Cooper and legislative leaders announced a bipartisan bill to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction.

That bill, Chaudhuri said, gave local school boards the authority to act in the best interest of their communities.

“Let’s be clear, this bill enacts a statewide mandate,” Chaudhuri said. “It takes away the ability of local health officials to respond to any resurgence of the variant that we might confront in the future.”

School boards have largely heeded Cooper’s recommendation to lift face mask mandates. The governor said last month that an increase in vaccinations and falling infection and hospitalization rates warrant lifting the mask mandate.

He was also critical of SB 173.

Gov. Roy Cooper

“The bipartisan law the legislature passed and I signed last year allows local boards to make these decisions for their own communities and that is still the right course,” Cooper said. “Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future.”

In a statement, Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), accused Democrats of working against parents.

Sen. Deanna Ballard

“This bill provides a level playing field for all families across the state since politicians continue to ignore the parents who are speaking up for their children,” said Ballard, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “It’s disheartening that the Senate Democrats would choose to turn their backs on families and disregard the effects masking has on our young children.”

The statement acknowledged that most districts have dropped mask mandates. It pointed out, however, that some are “inexplicably requiring students to wear masks even though COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations are declining.”

“This legislation would not have prevented students from wearing masks if they chose to or if there was an outbreak,” the statement said.

State Board of Education members have concerns about who gets a seat on new parent advisory panel

Mask mandates and critical race theory caused parents to be active at school board meetings in recent months.

Parents of children in traditional public schools should be guaranteed a larger share of the seats on a new statewide parent advisory group, State Board of Education (SBE) members said Thursday.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, created the panel to “advise and inform” state leaders and public policy officials on various aspects of education and student well-being.

Catherine Truitt

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 advisory group will include charter school parents, private school parents and those who homeschool.

State Board members said parents who homeschool their children and send them to private schools could receive a disproportionate share of the seats.

Jill Camnitz

“I feel that it does not match up with our mission to provide a sound basic education to every child in North Carolina Public Schools,” said State Board member Jill Camnitz, explaining that parents in the Northeastern Education Region she serves have expressed concerns.

State Board Vice Chairman Alan Duncan said he wishes Truitt had discussed the board’s makeup with state board members before Thursday’s meeting.

He said such a discussion might have produced a “different composition” of the panel, one that better reflects the students served by the state’s public schools.

Truitt reminded Duncan that she doesn’t need state board approval in such matters.

“I’m bringing this to the board as a courtesy and am in no way required to include the board in this work,” Truitt said.

Truitt faced tough questioning about why the panel needs parents of children in homeschools and private schools when the state has virtually no authority over them.

She said some superintendents view all children as part of their educational communities because they might one day return to traditional public schools.

“I think that’s a good model for how we should be invested in our children,” Truitt said. “It’s not the system of education that we’re trying to protect. We want this council to be about students.”

She added that the NCDPI and the state board could learn why parents are leaving public schools if the panel includes parents who have left.

“We want public schools to be the schools of choice, but that’s not always the case, which is why parental choice has taken such a prominent role, I would say, even before the pandemic,” Truitt said. “I so appreciate your candid feedback but I feel very strongly that we do have something to learn from all parents.”

James Ford

SBE member James Ford said he is concerned that the panel won’t reflect the diversity of North Carolina’s schools. A little more than 50% of 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,” Ford said.

Truitt said the application doesn’t ask parents to share their race or ethnicity. After the panel is selected, Truitt said she would welcome further discussion.

“It’s premature to have concerns about who is on the committee when the application process hasn’t even closed yet,” Truitt said.

Kisha Clemons, the 2020 NC Principal of the Year, reminded Truitt that the state board talks a lot about its commitment to equity and inclusion.

Clemons, principal of Shuford Elementary School in the Newton-Conover City Schools, said state education leaders must think ahead and be proactive in thinking about ways to include voices that are marginalized.

“We have to think about who those people are, and we have to make sure to create something and design something that’s going to get those voices at the table,” Clemons said. “The lack of thinking about race, ethnicity and other dimensions of diversity is problematic.”

The superintendent also addressed a newsletter sent by her campaign committee celebrating the parent group. Jen Mangrum, her opponent in the 2020 superintendent’s race, said the newsletter with a campaign donation button at the bottom, raises questions about Truitt’s ethics.

“Apparently, when you apply to be on Truitt’s Parent Advisory Board, you are encouraged to make a contribution to her next campaign,” Mangrum wrote. “That seems illegal and definitely unethical. But not surprising, knowing who she is.”

Truitt took issue with that characterization.

“People can insinuate all they want about whether this is a pay-to-play opportunity,” Truitt said. “Until there is proof of that, I would say to not make such insinuations and I would also say that if any superintendent has received that email, it’s because they’re on my campaign email list.”

She read a campaign email from State Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, urging voters to, “chip in now” to support his work protecting North Carolina consumers.

“So, it is commonplace for elected officials to send out emails through their campaign that automatically have a donate button at the bottom of the page,” Truitt said.

State Board of Education agrees to terminate Torchlight Academy’s charter

After an exhaustive, months-long investigation into management failures at Torchlight Academy, the State Board of Education (SBE) on Thursday voted to terminate its charter agreement with the troubled Raleigh charter school.

The decision could leave the parents and guardians of 600 students in grades K-8 scrambling to find new schools in the fall. Many of Torchlight’s students live in Wake and surrounding counties.

Torchlight’s board of directors can appeal the state board’s decision. It was unclear Thursday whether the school’s board plans to do so.  Stephon Bowens, the board’s attorney, did not return Policy Watch’s phone call before this story was published.

SBE member Amy White said the decision to close the school was a difficult one.

“A thorough investigation from multiple investigators within the [state] Department of Public Instruction, presented information to the CSAB  and this board, and the recommendation will be that we terminate the charter agreement between us and the Northeast Raleigh Academy doing business as Torchlight Academy,” said White, chair of the state board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee.

Don McQueen

Raleigh businessman Don McQueen operates the for-profit education management organization (EMO) — Torchlight Academy School, LLC — that manages Torchlight Academy. In January, the state board terminated its charter agreement with Three Rivers Academy, a Bertie County charter school also managed by McQueen. The state board cited  academic, fiscal and operational shortcomings. The Three Rivers’ board of directors has appealed the ruling.

White read the list of violations found during the state Department of Public Instruction’s investigation. The violations led the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) to recommend terminating Torchlight’s charter.

The violations include:

  • Violations of laws and regulations, including special education laws and federal conflict of interest and self-dealing regulations.
  • Violation of the charter agreement, including failure to produce requested documents, failure to provide adequate oversight and management of the school.
  • Failure to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management, failure to provide the N.C. Department of Public Instruction with required documentation of expenditures of state and federal money and comply with other fiscal requirements.
  • Allowing the ongoing self-dealing and conflicts of interest by the EMO, Torchlight Academy Schools LLC.

As Policy Watch previously reported, claims that students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents were altered in a student data management system monitored by the state triggered the investigation into McQueen’s management of Torchlight and Three Rivers. 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, his business partner and wife, signed the contract to hire Andrews at a salary of $65,000 a year. She reportedly remains employed by the school as a special education teacher. It is unclear whether the contract was approved by the school’s Board of Directors.

The school was placed on “probationary compliance status” on Feb. 4 because it had not submitted its financial audit for the past school year. The audit was due by the end of last October. The deadline was extended a month, and the school missed that deadline, too. The audit arrived electronically on Sunday, a day before the charter board made its recommendation to close Torchlight.

The audit found that McQueen used federal coronavirus relief money for numerous unallowable expenses.

The McQueens are employed by the school and own the management company, which is an obvious conflict of interest Torchlight board chairwoman Pamela Banks Lee has acknowledged. “The board will ask McQueen to step down as the executive director of Torchlight and put in place someone who will help us to rectify these compliance issues,” Lee told the state board last week.

Lee couldn’t tell the charter board how much Don or Cynthia McQueen are paid or whether contracts for the two even exist. Financial records show both make $100,000 annually.