State Board of Education unanimously revokes struggling Rowan County school’s charter

By: - January 8, 2021 5:30 am

State education officials will help place students in other schools for 2021-22 academic year

A tardy audit submission in late December couldn’t save Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School. 

The State Board of Education on Thursday unanimously voted to revoke the Rowan County school’s charter because its leaders failed to submit required financial audits for 2019 and 2020 on time. 

Essie Mae submitted its 2019 audit in late December, more than a year late, Dave Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools, told the state board on Wednesday. State statute allows the board to revoke a charter on that basis.

The school was given an extension for the 2020 audit, which is due this month. 

Essie Mae is so troubled that it is considered an “F” school under the state’s school performance grading system. 

The case against Essie Mae was so complete, that the state board voted to close it without much discussion. 

Tina Wallace, chairwoman of the school’s board, couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. A new phone number posted on the school’s Facebook page was repeatedly busy. 

Wallace told local media in November that Essie Mae’s board of directors has hired an attorney and will appeal the revocation if it was approved by the state board. Wallace also blamed the school’s audit problems on an accountant she declined to name. 

Dave Machado

Essie Mae’s pending closure at the end of school year could send students and families scrambling to find new placements for the 2021-22 academic year. The Office of Charter Schools will work with the Rowan-Salisbury School System to assist students in getting into other schools, Machado said.

The Charter School Advisory Board had recommended charter revocation in November. Charter School Advisory Board Chairman Alex Quigley said at the time that audits ensure that charters meet financial and operational requirements mandated by the state.

Charter School Advisory Board Chairman Alex Quigley

“We’re not in a position to evaluate their compliance if we don’t have that audit,” Quigley added. “Just the sheer fact that you [Essie Mae] haven’t produce an audit raises all kinds of questions about the general operation of the school.” 

“We have a responsibility as a board to take the necessary action to protect the children and families of the school,” advisory board member Joel Ford said. “Whatever action taken is not a reflection on parents and children. It’s a direct reflection on the leadership and management of the school.” 

Essie Mae struggled academically, financially and operationally almost from time it opened in August 2018

In September 2019, the advisory board placed the school on “allotment restrictions” after school leaders were unable to competently discuss the school’s $1 million budget. The restriction meant the school could only draw 12 smaller monthly payments from the state instead of the usual three larger installments. 

Shortly afterward, the advisory board allowed it to terminate its management agreement with Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy Schools. Wallace had accused Don McQueen, president of Torchlight, of poor fiscal and operational management. In recent media interviews, Wallace continued to blame the school’s fiscal and management troubles on that relationship.    

But the school’s problems continued. Essie Mae leaders showed more questionable judgement after parting ways with Torchlight. They turned to Darius Little, a management consultant with a checkered financial and criminal history to help clean up the organizational mess. 

“Incompetence is definitely the star of the show,” advisory board member Hilda Parlér said in November. 

Essie Mae is the only charter school in Rowan County, but a new one is scheduled to open next fall. The state board agreed Thursday to fasttrack a charter application for Faith Academy (named after the town in which it is located) which is projected to initially enroll 500 students in grades K-7. Enrollment projections call for 1,040 students in grades K-12 by 2027-2028. 

SBE member Amy White

SBE member Amy White, who chairs the board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee, raised the possibility of Faith Academy providing an option for Essie Mae families. “If we were to revoke the charter for Essie Mae, perhaps some of the students could move over to Faith Academy,” White said Wednesday. 

Both boards would have to agree to the arrangement and file paperwork with the state board.

A similar situation arose in Wake County when Hope Charter Leadership Academy relinquished its charter in 2019, Machado said. The school decided to close after failing to meet student performance goals. The board of directors for Hope Charter and PAVE Southeast Raleigh Charter School reached an agreement that gave former Hope Charter students enrollment preference at PAVE. 

“We will certainly work with both, Faith Charter and Essie Mae, if that [revocation] be the case, to encourage Faith Charter to give enrollment preference to Essie Mae students,” he said.

When the state board revokes a charter, the school receives a formal letter explaining the decision, including the school’s right to appeal it.  The Office of Charter Schools’ closure team meets with school leaders to explain how the school will be closed, Machado explained. 

“There is a very detailed process that we will meet with the school and discuss the whole procedure,” Machado said. “It’s very organized and very detailed.”

Any remaining financial assets must be returned to the local school district. 

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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.