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“Grossly negligent” NC charter school given 10 days to correct problems or face steep sanctions

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Torchlight Academy (Photo: Google Images)

Citing “grossly negligent” oversight of Torchlight Academy’s exceptional children program, the State Board of Education on Thursday placed the Raleigh charter school on Level 3 governance probationary status, which gives it 10 days to correct problems or risk further sanctions such as charter revocation. 

Torchlight must submit all documents to the Office of Charter Schools (OCS) by Jan. 5 showing that all compliance issues are corrected. The State Board will discuss the school at its Jan. 6 meeting. The K-8 school enrolls approximately 570 students and is managed by charter operator Don McQueen.   

The Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) had recommended a Level 2 governance probationary status, which would have given the school 30 days to correct the problems.   

The 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 had failed to comply with federal rules governing the education of children with disabilities. 

[2]
State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis

State Board Chairman Eric Davis said during Thursday’s special called meeting that the board is “deeply concerned” about Torchlight’s “widespread failure” to comply with federal education law. He said the State Board must ensure compliance with such laws or risk the loss of federal dollars the state needs to educate its children. 

“The board remains concerned that Torchlight appears to have engaged in intentional misconduct such as altering documents to change dates and documents on students’ IEPs without conducting the necessary meetings, data review and updates,” Davis said. 

The board is also concerned that McQueen hasn’t owned up to the misconduct, Davis said. 

“Torchlight continues to blame the Office of Charter Schools and DPI’s Exceptional Children Division for Torchlight’s noncompliance and takes little or no responsibility for its failure to comply with state and federal education laws rule and regulation,” Davis said. 

Sherry Thomas, director of the EC Division at the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), told the Charter School Advisory Board earlier this month [3] that one student’s Individual Educational Plan (IEP) had been changed. The alterations included dates and grades that were transferred from a previous IEP to a current one, as if it had been updated.   

IEPs are required in order to ensure students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.  

Other compliance issues and concerns that landed Torchlight on probation include: 

The Charter Board had scheduled a Dec. 13 meeting to discuss similar concerns at Three Rivers Academy, a charter school McQueen manages in Bertie County. The meeting was canceled after McQueen requested more time to prepare.   

[4]
Torchlight Academy Director Don McQueen

The action taken against McQueen on Thursday represents a remarkable fall for the ambitious charter operator who, less than five years ago, was on the rise as a result of Torchlight Academy’s performance on state exams. The school ranked No. 1 in student growth among state charters in math and reading in 2017. 

McQueen hoped to cash in on that success by quickly expanding Torchlight Academy Schools, LLC, the for-profit management company (EMO) that manages Torchlight Academy and perennially low-performing Three Rivers Academy. 

In 2019, McQueen’s firm was listed as the operator on five charter applications [5], none of which were approved by CSAB or the State Board. At the time, McQueen was in the middle of a management dispute with the leaders of Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School in Rowan County, which he managed. CSAB members expressed concern about McQueen taking on additional schools. 

“Don’s [McQueen] putting a heavy weight on his back here,” said Joe Maimone, the former NCDPI chief of staff who was a non-voting CSAB member at the time. 

McQueen told Policy Watch that he expected his expansion plans to be heavily scrutinized by the Charter Board. 

“They have been reasonable, fair-minded and firm,” McQueen said of CSAB members. “They don’t let much get by them.” 

The State Board allowed Essie Mae officials to terminate the management agreement with McQueen. Tina Wallace, who chaired the school’s board, accused McQueen of poor fiscal and operational management. The Charter Board eventually revoked the school’s charter after it failed to submit the required financial audits for 2019 and 2020.  

McQueen, who is Black, had fans on the state Charter Board, which has had significant turnover recently. Supporters saw him as someone who could bring diversity to a state where most charter management firms are led by whites. 

Last month, concerns about McQueen’s noncompliance with federal regulations derailed the fast-track application to launch Elaine Riddick Charter School in Perquimans County [6]. Riddick founders had chosen McQueen’s management firm to run the school.  

The state Charter Board voted down the fast-track application to open the school in August 2022. The board found that McQueen’s noncompliance with federal rules for exceptional children at Torchlight Academy and Three Rivers Academy was significant enough to deny the application.