When a politically-connected nonprofit takes over work in a languishing Robeson County elementary this year, they’ll do so amid questions about their experience and capacity for reaching at-risk children. But the concerns may go even deeper, a Policy Watch review has found.
That’s because the group, Achievement for All Children  (AAC), will bring on a consultant, Katy Ridnouer, with a checkered past in school management, including allegations uncovered by a Policy Watch report last year  that she discriminated against a child with special needs and drove out most of the teachers in the Charlotte charter she founded, Veritas Community School.
“That’s scary to me,” said Charlotte parent LauraLee McIntosh when she learned of Ridnouer’s involvement in the state’s Innovative School District , a controversial program that would allow outside groups —including private nonprofits like AAC and, possibly, for-profit companies—to take over struggling traditional public schools.
Last year, McIntosh accused Ridnouer of attempting to dissuade her daughter, then a 10-year-old diagnosed with a rare chromosome condition and mitochondrial disease, of enrolling at the school. If true, such claims would arguably violate state and federal laws requiring publicly-funded schools, including charters, to adapt to students with special needs.
Today, Ridnouer works for Leaders Building Leaders, a Raleigh consulting company founded in 2014 by charter advocate Thomas Miller. The for-profit company will charge $16,000 in public funds this year for its team, including Ridnouer, to advise AAC on their work in the state-run initiative.
According to a February 2018 memo signed by Miller and AAC’s chief, Tony Helton, Leaders Building Leaders’ work is expected to include an “organizational health, academic and operational” audit of AAC’s operations at Southside-Ashpole Elementary. The consultant will also provide leadership training, teacher development and act as a “strategic thinking partner” for the nonprofit chosen by the State Board of Education last week  to launch the takeover program’s first year in Robeson County.
But advocates for public schools and children with disabilities say the group’s involvement with Ridnouer, coupled with a particularly cutting assessment of the nonprofit’s capabilities  by a third-party consultant this year, should be reason for concern.
“At NCAE we have been concerned from the very beginning about the Innovative School District and a forced takeover of a public school by a for-profit management company,” said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, which lobbies for teachers in Raleigh.
“First it was big money in politics playing a factor in who was selected. Now we are very concerned about the impact some of their recent decisions mean for students with special needs and some of the educators working there.”
This year’s review by a state-commissioned consultant, School Works, credited AAC leadership for their goal of improving conditions in the Robeson school, but questioned their very limited experience and ability to serve struggling students. Yet the review’s most stinging criticism came in its evaluation of AAC’s plan for special programs and “at-risk” students, finding that the operator didn’t meet expectations for the state-run initiative.
Nevertheless, a majority of the State Board of Education expressed faith in ISD Superintendent Eric Hall’s recommendation to hire AAC. Hall lauded the operator for its responsiveness to the state program during a “rigorous” application process.
Yet Corye Dunn, public policy director for Disability Rights N.C. , a group that advocates for individuals with disabilities statewide, also expressed worries about the nonprofit’s ability to boost performance for at-risk children. For Southside-Ashpole Elementary, it’s a concern with major implications.
According to state records, roughly 18 percent of the Robeson County school’s enrollment last year was designated “exceptional children,” including more than a dozen diagnosed with a speech language impairment.
And the state’s count may underestimate the challenge, advocates point out. Schools like Southside-Ashpole, which serve a predominantly low-income population, tend to serve a disproportionately large share of children with special needs.
“I would urge state officials involved in the Innovative School District to be very mindful of students with disabilities’ access to public education in whatever this next iteration of administration is going to be,” Dunn said.
For her part, McIntosh reaffirmed her criticism of Ridnouer’s treatment of her daughter this week, adding that she’s “appalled” Ridnouer has any involvement in the state’s takeover district.
Among her allegations against Ridnouer last year, McIntosh accused the charter founder of refusing to modify school lunches to Skye’s dietary needs, leading the 10-year-old to all but stop eating at school. She said the school also excluded her from a field trip and denied her bathroom assistance, leading to an incident where McIntosh said Skye soiled herself at school.
At one point, McIntosh says Ridnouer removed Skye from the classroom and isolated her in a small office with a teacher.
“That was her way of pushing us out the door,” said McIntosh.
Margie O’Shields, a friend of McIntosh and a Charlotte advocate for children with special needs, confirmed McIntosh’s account to Policy Watch.
State law does not allow for publicly-funded schools, including charters, to deny enrollment or accommodations for children with special needs.
Indeed, Bill Hussey, director of the state’s Exceptional Children Division in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, confirmed last year that a month-long investigation of Ridnouer’s charter concluded with multiple admonishments for the school.
Although the state never investigated whether Ridnouer attempted to deny admission for Skye or counsel her to attend school elsewhere, Hussey said Veritas was ordered to offer concessions for the girl’s dietary restrictions and include her on school field trips.
Skye’s case wasn’t the only controversy for Ridnouer at the Charlotte charter, which served roughly 150 children last year, less than a quarter of them hailing from low-income homes, according to state data .
Last year’s Policy Watch report found 10 of the school’s 13 teachers departed at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, many of them blasting Ridnouer’s leadership during exit interviews, according to a former board member at the school. Soon after, Ridnouer announced her decision to step down at Veritas.
Miller, of Leaders Building Leaders, declined comment for this story. And Ridnouer did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests this week, but last August, she denied any mistreatment of Skye at Veritas Community School.
“I have nothing to say because that never occurred,” Ridnouer said last year. “We always told (McIntosh) that we are a public school and we serve all students.”
Charters are publicly-funded schools granted exceptions to the state’s calendar and curriculum requirements.
School choice advocates say the schools provide a necessary option for parents dissatisfied with traditional K-12 options. And while many have applauded their meteoric rise in North Carolina since a 100-charter cap was lifted in 2011, some critics have accused the charter movement of serving a more affluent and white student population while exacerbating segregation in North Carolina schools .
Advocates for individuals with disabilities have also critiqued charters for “counseling out” some children with special needs, or suggesting that such children’s needs would be better served elsewhere, similar to the allegations McIntosh made against Veritas.
Both Hussey and Dunn acknowledged that problem exists in North Carolina charters, and that school leaders sometimes need to be reminded of their statutory responsibilities to serve all students.
This week, Dunn called the practice “absolutely impermissible.”
“And it’s remarkable the number of experienced educators in North Carolina who don’t know that’s impermissible,” she said.
Dunn said access for children with special needs will be particularly crucial for the ISD, which will maintain the school’s current attendance lines even as it’s managed by a charter operator.
“Most charter schools are schools of choice,” she said. “This [the ISD] is a different structure than most charter schools. If children can’t go to this school, where else will they go? This is their default school. Unlike most charters, this school has a population they are required to serve.”
Dunn added that the operators and consultants at Southside-Ashpole Elementary, which reports 87 percent of its children to be “economically disadvantaged,” will likely need to work with many children with emotional and behavioral health needs.
“I don’t know exactly what challenges to anticipate,” said Dunn. “But we of course would be concerned about students with disabilities getting access to their education.”
Legalization of the state takeover program was spearheaded two years ago by former state lawmaker Rob Bryan, who now sits on AAC’s board of directors, and lobbying for the initiative was funded at least in part by John Bryan, the Oregon school choice booster (no relation to Rob Bryan) who founded the TeamCFA charter network .
TeamCFA, which runs 13 charters in North Carolina, has signed a contract to partner with AAC in managing Southside-Ashpole Elementary. The Charlotte charter founded by Ridnouer, Veritas Community School, is also a TeamCFA school.
Meanwhile, Helton, AAC’s CEO, serves in the same role for TeamCFA. Helton was a charter adviser for the State Board of Education until he stepped down last year, shortly after AAC’s formation.
Helton did not respond to Policy Watch requests for comment, but ISD Superintendent Eric Hall—who heads up the state initiative—told Policy Watch this week that his office is in the midst of negotiating a contract with the school’s chosen operator.
“The roles of each individual involved, either directly with AAC or with the ISD, they’ll be things that we’ll have to identify and talk about,” said Hall. “We’ll set some pretty explicit expectations around anyone who’s going to be involved.”
Hall didn’t comment specifically on Ridnouer or the allegations made against her last year, but he emphasized that his office will be heavily involved in the day-to-day management of the school in partnership with the operator.
“The concerns anyone has will be diminished by the oversight of the ISD,” he added. “Accountability for this work is going to be at a greater threshold than really anything else we have in North Carolina.”
Hall, meanwhile, pointed out that the operator’s five-year budget plan for Southside-Ashpole includes funding for two exceptional children teachers and one therapist or counselor.
“Compliance for EC children, and all children for that matter, is critically important to us,” said Hall.
Hussey said his office, which heads up monitoring and compliance with disabilities law, will also be “intensely” involved with Southside-Ashpole during AAC’s first year in the school.
“We’ll go in positive and work with them intensely in the beginning,” said Hussey. “If we do find problems, we’ll work with them to address those problems.”
McIntosh said she hopes so, for the sake of other children like Skye who struggle to fit into their schools.
“This is all about meeting the needs of the children,” she said. “These kids have so much to offer.”