Controversial NC charter school operator poised to lose charter amid fiscal, governance concerns

By: - January 4, 2022 12:18 pm

State Board of Education to decide fate at Thursday meeting

Last year ended on a sour note for charter school operator Don McQueen when the Charter School Advisory Board placed Torchlight Academy, which he manages, on probation.

The new year isn’t going well for McQueen, either.

On Monday, the Charter School Advisory Board unanimously recommended that the State Board of Education close Three Rivers Academy, a K-8 school of about 80 students that McQueen operates in Bertie County.

The State Board is expected to vote on the recommendation at its regular monthly meeting Jan. 6.

The State Board is also expected to examine whether Torchlight has corrected state and federal compliance issues.

At Three Rivers, state monitors found numerous financial and governance shortcomings, including violations of special education law.

The Office of Charter Schools and the Exceptional Children Division of the N.C. Department of Public Schools have been looking into fiscal and governance concerns at the school for months.

Monitors discovered these deficiencies while examining records for Torchlight Academy, which also is on the verge of losing its charter.

Charter School Advisory Board Chairwoman Cheryl Turner said several failures led to the board’s recommendation to close the school:

  • Data shows that Three Rivers didn’t meet accepted standards of student performance.
  • Three Rivers didn’t provide financial records and audits, which are legally required as part of generally accepted standards of fiscal management.
  • The school violated federal and state law, including special education law.
  • Three Rivers also violated its charter by failing to promptly provide requested information; nor did the school’s governing board properly monitor Three Rivers’ affairs.

During Monday’s charter advisory board meeting, McQueen addressed several concerns state officials had about his management of Three Rivers.

“We do understand the gravity of the concern,” McQueen said. “We’re bringing a tremendous amount of resources. We had folks, even from DPI, folks who formerly worked there, reach out to us and offer assistance.”

Torchlight Academy Director Don McQueen

A member of Three Rivers’ board of directors told the charter advisory board Monday that he was unaware Three Rivers had fiscal and governance problems. This disclosure validated the charter advisory board members’ doubts that Three Rivers’ governing body was adequately overseeing the school.

“No sir, I was not,” said the board member Bishop Ron Watford when asked whether he knew about Three Rivers’ issues.

He seemed unsure of how often or when the school’s board of directors meets. That seemed to contradict an earlier statement by McQueen, who told the charter advisory board that the school’s directors are “intricately” involved in the process and in “full knowledge” of the issues the school must address.

After hearing from Watford, the charter advisory board went into a closed session. It returned and quickly voted to recommend closing the school.

Cheryl Turner, the charter advisory board chairwoman told McQueen and Three River staffers attending the virtual meeting that they would receive a letter explaining the recommendation in detail.

McQueen took over Three Rivers after a private management group, Global Education Resources, which he was a part of, dissolved. That left McQueen to manage Three Rivers alone.

Three Rivers was previously called Heritage Leadership Academy. That school lost its charter because of low academic performance and non-compliance with charter rules and regulations.

The recommendation to terminate Three River’s charter comes just weeks after the State Board placed McQueen’s flagship charter school, Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy, on probation due to problems in the school’s exceptional children department.

A June discovery of “altered documents” in a software program the state uses to collect, manage and analyze information about exceptional children’s programs, was among the more egregious findings by state program monitors scrutinizing Torchlight.

Monitors previously found that the school failed to comply with federal rules governing the education of children with disabilities.

Similar issues were found at Three Rivers.

Sherry Thomas, director of the Exceptional Children’s Division at the State Department of Public Instruction, said monitors could not verify whether students received necessary services.

Thomas said monitors observed virtual instruction for special education services that did not look like it “aligned with what we were seeing in ECATS (Every Child Accountability &Tracking System) as the required service delivery.”

ECATS is the program used to manage and analyze exceptional children’s data.

“That’s a red flag for exceptional children; that what is on paper is not being implemented or what is being implemented is not being properly documented on the student’s schedule or in the student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program),” Thomas said.

Thomas said her division must make sure schools under its watch comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which makes a free and appropriate education available to children with disabilities.

“If we are in violation of not ensuring that a school or a district is providing a free and appropriate public education, then our federal dollars can be delayed, they can be reduced, they can be pulled back,” Thomas said. “So, we have a financial statewide obligation that could impact us if we are not vigilant.”

Torchlight’s new Exceptional Children’s director, Dustin Squibb, who also oversees the EC program at Three Rivers, said his priority has been to ensure students receive the services documented in their IEPs.

“We’ve really focused all of our efforts on supporting students, making sure those students’ schedules are appropriate and now updating the IEPs to reflect exactly what students need,” Squibb said.

State monitors also noted on visits to Three Rivers that students were not offered “specials” or “electives.”

Ashley Baquero, a consultant with the Office of Charter Schools, noted the numerous leadership changes at Three Rivers since McQueen assumed management of the school.

“It’s sometimes very difficult for OCS to know who the leader on campus was and who is responsible for doing things, for example, the school improvement plan,” Baquero said.

Charter Board member Eric Sanchez asked McQueen why those basic requirements for running an exceptional children program were not taking place before Squibb was hired.

The lack of required services harmed children in the program, Sanchez said.

“Why did you need a savior?” Sanchez asked, referring to Squibb. “Why didn’t this dawn on you in October [when Squibb was hired], and what was happening beforehand and how can you assure this group that kids are being educated in the correct way, in accordance with their IEP, prior to October?”

McQueen responded that there’s always room for improvement.

“I think sometimes you’re working in this field … and you might let some things slip through the cracks,” McQueen said. “I don’t think servicing students ever slipped through the cracks, though. There may be some disagreement or nuanced difference with respect to what was stated in their IEP, but students were continually being served. Sometimes you recognize you need assistance and you go out and do your best to get that.”

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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.