Rowan County charter school seeks to sever agreement with Raleigh-based management firm

By: - August 1, 2019 3:13 pm

School’s board cites fiscal and operational concerns

Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School in the Rowan County town of East Spencer recently notified the state Charter School Advisory Board that it will part ways with its management firm – Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy Services (TAS) – after only one year due to poor fiscal and operational management.

Specifically, school officials say TAS failed to account for expenditures, pay operating costs, follow policies, rules and regulations and adhere to the curriculum adopted by the school’s governing board.

“Our board determined that it would be in the best interest of the school to move forward without TAS as our management company,” Tina Foxx Wallace, who chairs the school’s Board of Directors, said in an interview.

The minutes from the school’s June 24 board meeting show members of the board of directors believe TAS is responsible for a $50,000 deficit the school had at the end of the school year.

The board agreed to secure a line of credit to cover the deficit and to bill TAS for $30,000 because it “determined that the budget deficit is a result of poor operational management.”

Specific areas of poor management cited by the board included the school lunch and transportation plans. The minutes of the meeting don’t provide details, which school officials were reluctant to discuss.

Don McQueen, who serves as CEO of TAS and Executive Director of Torchlight Academy, declined to discuss specific allegations against the firm when reached late Wednesday.

He said the contract between TAS and the charter school permits termination due to “mutual disillusion.”

“I don’t want to cast aspersions on the management or manager of the school board,” McQueen said. “They’re a new and fledgling organization and I think they have a lot of promise. The best thing is the promise of choice for the students to have a choice. In that county there is none. It would be most unfortunate since the adults in the room can’t get along, the children suffer.”

During its July meeting, the Charter School Advisory Board unanimously approved the board’s request to terminate its relationship with TAS. School leaders expect final approval from the State Board of Education when it meets Aug. 8.

“At this point, we have been advised to move forward without the management of from the past, Torchlight,” Wallace said.

The plan is to move to a system of in-house management in which members of the Foxx Charter board of directors will share management duties previously held by TAS.

Located in a small town of just over 1,500, the school is named in honor of Essie Mae Kiser Foxx, a community leader and education advocate who died in 2017. Wallace is her youngest daughter.

When Foxx Charter (often referred to as “Essie’s School”) opened last August with 150 elementary students, it became the only school in East Spencer. The town of mostly lower income Black residents had been without a school since Paul. L. Dunbar High School closed in the 1980s.

Many East Spencer children are bused to neighboring Spencer and Salisbury and assigned to schools that are among the lowest ranked in the county.

TAS also manages Torchlight Academy in Raleigh, which achieved one of the highest growth index scores in the state in reading and math during the 2016-17 school year.

Nancy Lund, a former Foxx board member who helped draft the school’s charter application, declined comment on the specific complaints against Torchlight.

Lund was willing, however, to talk about the decision-making process that led the board to hire Torchlight as the school’s “educational management organization” (EMO).

She recalled that Torchlight’s apparent ability to move the academic needle with economic disadvantaged students appealed to the new school’s leadership, a sentiment that’s reflected in the charter application.

“We are impressed with the academic growth demonstrated in the past school year with a demographic very similar to our anticipated population,” school leaders wrote.

Lund said TAS’s promise of a “turnkey” school that would open in 2018 was also attractive as was its offer to provide a $50,000 signing bonus the school could use during its “ready to open phase” to cover expenses.

“And the fact that our agreement with Torchlight was that we would be designing the curriculum [was appealing],” Lund said. “Some of the EMOs come as a package deal, and so you accept their academic program along with the services that they provide.”

The school’s leadership was so thrilled with Torchlight’s contract provisions that it didn’t bother to pursue other EMOs.

“We felt like Torchlight was offering us the best options,” Lund said.

The complaints against TAS provide a rare glimpse into the operations of charter schools and their sometimes tumultuous relationships with for-profit EMOs.

Still, Dave Machado, executive director of the Office of Charter Schools, said only two schools in recent memory have requested permission to terminate agreements with EMOs.

The other involved one of the state’s two virtual charter schools, N.C. Connections Academy (now N.C. Cyber Academy), which in April, found itself engaged in an ugly brawl with its EMO, Pearson Online & Blended Learning, after it announced plans to terminate its management contract with the British multi-national conglomerate that sells an array of education products and services.

The school’s board of directors complained that the management firm didn’t provide the school a curriculum that aligned with the state curriculum or one that was pliant enough to allow teachers to make changes to meet the needs of individual students.

The board also complained that Pearson didn’t share information about how money is spent or allow school leaders to assume responsibilities agreed upon when the contract between the school and Pearson was amended in July 2017.

Pearson angrily countered by accusing the school’s board of directors of making misstatements, and stealing intellectual property.

Steven Walker, vice chairman of the Charter School Advisory Board, remarked: “Things have gotten as ugly as I’ve ever seen them between an EMO and a board.”

In May, the State Board of Education approved N.C. Cyber Academy’s request to terminate its management contract with Pearson.

The board of directors hired four different vendors to manage the school.

Meanwhile, Lund, the former “Essie’s School” board member, said she is “confident” the current board can handle the management duties if state officials approve the school’s request.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.