Torchlight Academy faces closure after state Charter School Advisory Board recommendation

By: - February 28, 2022 9:03 pm

The Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) on Monday recommended that Torchlight Academy be closed due to glaring “conflicts of interests” and a pattern of “self-dealing” by the school’s management firm, Torchlight Academy Schools LLC.

The State Board of Education (SBE) is expected to consider the recommendation when it meets on Thursday. The State Board generally follows CSAB recommendations.

Despite its academic successes, CSAB Chairwoman Cheryl Turner said the missteps at Torchlight threatened federal school funding for the entire state.

“The fiscal management and operations, they’ve got issues, they’ve got serious issues, and the issues escalated to the place that they became a threat to the entire state of North Carolina in terms of funding from the federal government,” Turner said. “That’s a big deal.”

Don McQueen

Raleigh businessman Don McQueen operates the for-profit education management organization (EMO) that manages Torchlight Academy. Three Rivers Academy, a Bertie County charter school managed by McQueen, has been ordered closed by the SBE because of fiscal and operational shortcomings.

McQueen has been dogged by claims that students’ Individualized Education Program (IEPs) 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 for which she was reportedly paid $65,000 a year. She reportedly remains employed by the school as a special education teacher.

The questionable record changes made by Andrews had the effect of making old student IEP’s look like new ones. IEP’s are required to ensure students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services. Generally, educators must meet with parents and submit new data before IEP changes are made.

Torchlight is also being scrutinized for its handling and reporting of grant funds received under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The grant provides federal funding to ensure free and appropriate education is provided to students with special needs at no cost to parents.

Sherry Thomas, director of the Exceptional Children’s Division at the State Department of Public Instruction, told the CSAB last month that the federal money must be used as intended.

“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.”

On Monday, McQueen acknowledged that mistakes were made, but said the nearly 600 Black and Hispanic children in grades K-8 the school serves will be harmed if the school is closed.

“How will our children benefit? How does our community benefit? How does our future benefit in the Black and Brown community by closing a school that has exceeded growth for the last four years?” McQueen asked. “Based on that fact alone, we should have common ground to find a way to rectify whatever is wrong.”

McQueen said parents don’t ask if  the school is in compliance with state and federal laws when they enroll their children.

“Our parents come because of the number of men in our building, specifically men because it’s a dearth of men in the lives of our children and we recognize that when somebody else might not see it all and don’t have a way to address it,” McQueen said, voice growing shrill.

The recommendation to close the school is based on:

  • 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.

Both McQueen and wife Cynthia McQueen are employed by Torchlight and are officers in the management firm, which state officials said constitutes a conflict of interest. Don McQueen is the school’s executive director and Cynthia McQueen is its principal.

Torchlight board chairwoman Pamela Banks Lee acknowledged that the board had failed in its oversight duties and knew little about how an EMO works when it contracted for management services with McQueen’s company in 2015.

“The board recognizes that we have made some mistakes,” Lee said candidly. “Probably one of the biggest mistakes was not understanding how an EMO works when we entered into that contract.”

Lee said the board planned to ask McQueen to step down as executive director of the school if allowed to remain open and “put in place someone who will help us to rectify these compliance issues.”

The same conflict exists for Cynthia McQueen, but Lee said the board had not discussed whether she should step down.

“We have never knowingly done anything wrong managing Torchlight,” Cynthia McQueen said. “Clearly, we have a lot of paperwork flaws and procedural flaws that we thank you for bringing that to our attention because they need to be corrected.”

She said that if the same “investigatory process” was used to examine any other school, the same mistakes would likely be found.

“No school is without mistakes,” Cynthia McQueen said. “No school is without error. No person is without error.”

Meanwhile, Lee would not commit to parting ways with the EMO.

“If the EMO can come up to the standard that this board needs, then we will possibly try to maintain that EMO,” Lee said. “If not, then we’re willing to go back to the way we were. We just want the school to survive, and we’re willing to do what we need to do so that can be the case.”

Despite being the chairwoman of the school’s board of directors, Lee seemed to know little about the operation of the school. She only managed to answer a few of the questions the Charter Board peppered her with during a special called meeting that last more than eight hours.

Lee did recall, however, that the agreement between the management firm and the board was approved by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, and it clearly showed Don McQueen and Cynthia McQueen as employees of the school and officers of the management firm.

“That’s why we thought everything was OK,” Lee said.

The board of directors was drawn to management firm because it had difficulty securing a loan for a new school,” Lee said. The prospect of not being responsible for deficits at the end of the school year was also appealing, she said.

“For us, for several years we had been in debt, come out at the end of the year and we would have to get a loan, then figure out how we were going to pay that debt,” Lee said. For us, it was about what are we going to do to not end up in debt at the end of the year, still provide the same level of education for our kids, and still keep the school moving forward and doing what we could do for our community.”

After the board questioned Lee, Turner said understood how Torchlight got into trouble.

“I can see exactly how this happened and I can appreciate your transparency because know it’s very clear how we got here,” Turner said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.