Don McQueen, operator of Three Rivers Academy, allegedly padded enrollment numbers, paid families so students would attend class, and took other extreme measures to ensure state per-pupil funds kept flowing to the troubled charter school in Bertie County.
A former teacher detailed these allegations in an interview with Policy Watch, which were corroborated by a former principal of the school, Hans Lassiter. Lassiter worked at the controversial Bertie County charter school during the first half of the 2020-21 school year.
Lassiter has more than two decades’ of experience as a teacher and school administrator. He told Policy Watch that during his first weeks on the job as principal, in July 2020, he ran into a wall of secrecy.
“I want to see student records; I want to see school improvement plans; I want to see examples of past teacher evaluations; I want to be able to look at teacher vacancies so I can begin to recruit and hire, and I got none of that,” Lassiter said.
Earlier this month, the State Board of Education followed the recommendation of the Charter School Advisory Board and ordered Three Rivers to close. The school is appealing the State Board’s order.
McQueen did not respond to phone calls from Policy Watch seeking a response to the allegations.
Lassiter later learned that McQueen hired most Three Rivers teachers without Lassiter’s input. And the school improvement plan, which was legally required, was a brief, vague document written by a former interim principal.
“I wanted to see what [plan] was in place that would be used to improve or drive instruction and to meet goals; there was none,” Lassiter said. “Then a two-page document was put in front of me from the previous principal, who was an interim principal, who took the place of an interim principal, who took the place of a principal who quit after a week.”
A chaotic situation
State investigators looking into governance and fiscal issues at Three Rivers told the State Board of Education that there was so much turnover in school leadership that they often didn’t know who to contact to address concerns.
“It’s sometimes very difficult for OCS [Office of Charter Schools] to know who the leader on campus was and who is responsible for doing things, for example, the school improvement plan,” Ashley Baquero, an OCS consultant, told the State Board at a recent meeting.
Keeping an accurate count of enrollment at Three Rivers was also a challenge, Lassiter said. A Three Rivers student recruiter reported enrolling dozens of children, but they seldom showed up for class, Lassiter said. Students at the school, like most others in North Carolina, were attending classes remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lassiter had each teacher and student log-in information and could easily see how many students were in class each day. His six or seven teachers had only eight or nine students in attendance, he said.
“I would log in every class period and I would count the number of students I would see, and that was part of my daily principal’s report the number of students I saw,” Lassiter said. “Although I wasn’t a mathematical genius, I can multiply. If I had nine students per class, seven class meetings, that’s 63 students.”
That’s short of the 80 students that charters in North Carolina are legally required to enroll.
McQueen’s math was different. He and his wife, Cynthia McQueen, claimed more than 100 students were enrolled, Lassiter said.
The discrepancy led Lassiter to wonder if the McQueens were bolstering enrollment in the state’s student information system, known as PowerSchool, by electronically moving students from their larger school, Torchlight Academy in Raleigh, and onto the rolls of the smaller Three Rivers.
This would have ensured funding for Three Rivers would have been secure for the entire school year.
If students are on the rolls after the first month of school, charter schools keep state and local funding even if the child leaves.
“That would give us the students we need for [for the first month] so that we secure that per-pupil expenditure,” Lassiter said. “So, these students who were being enrolled by their [Three Rivers] community liaison may have been sold on the concept that they were going to Torchlight or Three Rivers for remote instruction only. They were being funneled into our [Three Rivers] average daily membership.”
“The just want bodies”
McQueen manages Three Rivers and Torchlight Academy in Raleigh through Torchlight Academy Schools, LLC, the for-profit management company that he operates.
Torchlight Academy is also under state scrutiny for alleged mismanagement of special education programs and could also be ordered to close.
The Charter School Advisory Board has called a special meeting for Jan. 26 to discuss Torchlight’s future.
Lassiter said that even before he accepted the job at Three Rivers, former colleagues and friends who knew McQueen warned him about the charter operator’s domineering personality and autocratic management style.
He got a taste of it immediately when McQueen called a meeting to discuss ways to increase enrollment.
“I would get these text messages from Mr. McQueen upset that [parents] had withdrawn their children to go back to Bertie County Schools,” Lassiter said.
During one meeting to discuss enrollment, Lassiter said, McQueen got irate and yelled at staff about declines.
A former teacher who asked not to be identified because she feared retaliation, said McQueen became obsessed with enrollment. The teacher said one of her colleagues resigned after experiencing one of McQueen’s rants.
The teacher said McQueen ordered Three Rivers’ staff not to contact parents about students’ attendance, behavioral problems or schoolwork.
The McQueens feared the school would lose students — and the state and local funding that followed them — if teachers called parents to complain about their children, the teacher said.
“We were to go through him; they just want bodies,” the teacher said. “This is about keeping them [students] on the rolls.”
Lassiter corroborated the teacher’s claim and said he too, was told not to contact parents about certain matters.
McQueen and his wife, Cynthia McQueen, were aggressive recruiters, Lassiter and the former teacher said.
The two reportedly would stand outside of Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and local convenience stores, then approach people who had children in tow, Lassiter and the former teacher said.
The McQueens would show families pictures of students in freshly pressed uniforms, and of children riding shiny battery-operated SUVs and cars, which were a big selling point, Lassiter and the former teacher said.
Bertie Schools Superintendent Otis Smallwood said he had never seen the McQueens recruiting students outside of retail establishments but had heard reports of them doing so.
At one point, the McQueens also allegedly paid students or their parents paid $25 via CashApp each week the student did not miss class, the former teacher said. “That was very bizarre to me,” the teacher said.
Lassiter corroborated the former teacher’s account. Lassiter said he asked McQueen to tell parents not to call school staff if they did not receive the promised money at the end of the week.
“You know how folks are about their money,” Lassiter said. “If 5:01 p.m., on Friday when that Cash App didn’t go ka-ching, guess who they would call?”
Lassiter found in his investigation into the pay-for-attendance scheme that such transactions were legal if they came from private sources and not state or local funds. However, it was unclear where McQueen got the money to pay students for attending school.
The McQueens also raffled off a used BMW about two years ago as part of a strategy to increase enrollment, Lassiter said. Parents who enrolled their children in the school received a raffle ticket for the car.
“As the story goes, the parents got the car and as soon as the tags and registration were put on the car, those kids were gone,” Lassiter said.
Questions begin to mount
Lassiter’s concerns and questions about the school begin to mount as fall approached. McQueen’s personality and “basically how he was a tyrant” began to wear on him, he said.
That’s also when Lassiter began to receive multiple emails from the Office of Charter Schools requesting information. Some of the requests were made before he became principal.
Lassiter told McQueen that he would fulfill the requests but needed the data that he had previously requested during his first weeks on the job.
The report eventually submitted to OCS included several plans regarding school improvement, monitoring, staffing plan, and student enrollment, all of which Lassiter was responsible for implementing.
Lassiter objected to that task because he didn’t have any input into the development of the plans.
“I had not contributed a single sentence to this plan that I was being held accountable for,” he said. “So, finally it got to a point where Don McQueen sent the DPI [NC Department of Public Instruction] an email that said; ‘Moving forward, please exclude Principal Hans Lassiter from any correspondence for Three Rivers Academy.’”
That shocked Lassiter, who as administrator, was charged with overseeing the day-to-day operation of the school.
“At that point, it became clear that there was something that just wasn’t right,” Lassiter said.
He again took inventory of his concerns about Three Rivers, which by this time, also included questions about COVID-19 protocols.
“We got trained on how to administer COVID tests,” Lassiter said. “I get this 20-minute training session where I’m pricking folks’ fingers and putting blood on test strips and giving them rapid test results. I’m like I have zero comfort level with this, but that’s what he wanted to get kids in the building.”
McQueen eventually approached Lassiter and told him that he was going in a “different direction” with the principal’s position.
A disengaged board of directors
McQueen’s tight grip on the school was evident in a recent Charter School Advisory Board meeting. None of the school’s board of directors attended the virtual meeting, even though the school’s charter was on the line.
Sensing the board’s concern, McQueen quickly phoned a member of the school’s board of directors and convinced him to call into the meeting.
It was not a good move. The man couldn’t tell the Charter Board when the board of directors meets each month. He also said he was unaware of the fiscal and governance concerns the state had about the school.
Lassiter told Policy Watch that the school’s board, if it exists, never met while he was principal.
Charter school boards are required to meet and to publicly post minutes of those meetings the same as traditional public school districts.
The board’s meeting schedule is posted on the school’s website but there is no evidence that the board actually met.
Most traditional public schools and charter schools also list the names, and sometimes contact information, for school board members and charter school directors on their websites.
The names of the directors supposedly overseeing Three Rivers are not listed on the school’s website. Nor are they listed on Torchlight Academy’s website.
Stephon J. Bowens, a Raleigh-based attorney hired to represent the Three Rivers and Torchlight boards of directors, disputed claims that the boards do not exist. “I can tell you there is a board, there were board meetings with meeting notes and the like,” Bowens said.
Bowens has represented the boards for only two months. He said he had no knowledge of students being paid to attend class or an automobile being raffled.
Multiple failures at Torchlight Academy
Torchlight is also at risk of losing its charter because of alleged mismanagement of its exceptional children program. State program monitors recently found that Torchlight officials “altered documents” in a software program the state uses to collect, manage and analyze information about exceptional children’s programs.
State monitors also found that Torchlight had failed to comply with federal rules governing the education of children with disabilities.
Similar issues were found at Three Rivers.
Lassiter said that while he was principal, Three Rivers never had a teacher for exceptional children. Lassiter said McQueen told him that students would receive services via Zoom from teachers at Torchlight.
“I had concerns, as did my faculty, and I would tell them, that if you have one exceptional student in your class under the moniker of special education, you have to provide them with the accommodations that they are due” in their individual education programs or 504 plans, Lassiter said. “How can you do that when you don’t have exceptional children’s teachers in Three Rivers Academy?”
Individualized Education Programs, also known as IEPs, are required to ensure students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services. Similarly, a 504 plan requires schools to provide students with disabilities with appropriate educational services to meet their needs, equal to how the needs of students without disabilities are met.
Other failures at Three Rivers led the Charter School Advisory Board to recommend closing the school, board chairwoman Cheryl Turner said at a recent meeting. The list included:
- Data show 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.
Bertie County Schools Superintendent Otis Smallwood said the school district paid for only about 20 students to attend Three Rivers this school year.
If Three Rivers closes, Smallwood said the district of nearly 2,000 students in rural northeastern North Carolina could easily absorb local students attending the school.
“We’ll be ready for them,” Smallwood said.