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Repeated and serious management failures highlighted in recommendation to shutter once-promising charter school

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Don McQueen’s Torchlight Academy School faces closure

State Board of Education is scheduled to consider recommendation today to close Raleigh’s Torchlight Academy 

The state Charter School Advisory Board’s recommendation to close Torchlight Academy in Raleigh on Monday represented a dramatic fall from grace for Don McQueen, the owner of the firm managing the 23-year-old school. 

The State Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the charter board’s recommendation to close Torchlight later this afternoon. The agenda has the discussion scheduled for after 4 p.m.

McQueen had big dreams of operating a chain of charter schools through Torchlight Academy Schools LLC, an educational management organization he started in 2014. Not long ago, his organization was listed on as many as five charter school applications as the potential management firm. Clients were eager to replicate Torchlight’s academic success. The school had seemingly found the secret to educating Black and Latinx students from low-income communities. 

None of the schools were approved by the state Charter Board, which thought McQueen was attempting to grow too fast, too soon. He’d just completed a messy assumption of Three Rivers Academy in Bertie County and was facing criticism for his management of Essie Mae Foxx Charter School in Rowan County. The State Board of Education allowed Essie Mae Foxx’s board of directors to part ways with McQueen after only one year. It ordered the school to close after it failed to produce financial audits required by state law. Essie Mae leaders accused McQueen of poor fiscal and operational management, the same deficiencies that have led the charter board to recommend that Torchlight Academy be closed. 

Earlier this year, the State Board ordered Three Rivers to close. The K-8 school McQueen currently manages has fewer than 100 students. Academic, fiscal and operational deficiencies doomed the school.  

Pleading for another chance

So, there stood McQueen on Monday fighting to keep Torchlight Academy open after state officials with the Exceptional Children, Federal Programs and Financial Business Services divisions made a compelling case against McQueen, pointing out numerous missteps in his handling of the school’s finances and operation. 

He was both humble and defiant. 

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Don McQueen told the charter board that the school’s record of success warranted a second chance. 

“When our parents hear about Torchlight Academy, they really don’t say, ‘Are ya’ll in compliance?’ ” McQueen told the Charter Board. “They make the assumption that we are or working toward that on an ongoing basis. I don’t see how anybody can stay in compliance with DPI unless you’re working on it every day.” 

Fiercely proud of Torchlight’s academic success the past four years when students made or exceeded expected academic growth, McQueen told the charter board that the school’s record of success warranted a second chance. 

“Based on that fact alone, we should have common ground to find a way to rectify whatever is wrong,” McQueen said. 

CSAB Chairwoman Cheryl Turner said Monday’s hearing was not about academics. “At no point in the last two, three months that we’ve been talking about this has anybody ever suggested that Torchlight, academically is not a good school, nobody at all,” Turner said. Fiscal management and operations of the school are major concerns that have “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. 

The gravity of the moment was not lost on Cynthia McQueen, Torchlight’s principal and Don McQueen’s wife and business partner.  

Cynthia McQueen said the family has been permanently damaged by the media attention surrounding the school. “Now and for generations to come, it’s going to pop up in newspaper articles vilifying us,” Cynthia McQueen said, sharing that she is under a doctor’s care and taking medication for the stress she’s endured while the state has investigated the school and management firm. 

She explained that the mistakes made by the management firm were a “lot of paperwork flaws and procedural flaws.” 

“We absolutely know that we’re not perfect,” she said. “We do want to improve. We made many mistakes along the way with paperwork but we didn’t make mistakes along the way with the children.” 

Repeated financial failures

The school was placed on “probationary compliance status” on Feb. 4 because it had not submitted its financial audit for the past school year. The audit was due by the end of last October. The deadline was extended a month, and the school missed that deadline, too. The audit arrived electronically on Sunday, a day before the charter board made its recommendation to close Torchlight. 

The audit found that McQueen used federal coronavirus relief money for unallowable expenses. Money for cybersecurity, for example, was used to purchase mobile hotspots. 

“If you’re familiar with the [coronavirus] allotment relief manual, these items out of coronavirus relief funds were very explicit on what you were allowed to purchase,” said Shirley McFadden, a monitoring and compliance officer with NCDPI. “It is an unallowable expense. It does not meet the cybersecurity guidelines or help to mitigate the risk of cybersecurity threats.”  

Federal coronavirus relief money for student mental and physical health services in response to the pandemic requires the person providing the services to be licensed. State monitors could find no evidence that the person hired by McQueen was licensed. 

Torchlight serves about 600 students in grades K-8. The school purchased 1,253 Chromebooks with COVID relief money. There were also $139,113 worth of questionable expenses associated with the school’s breakfast and lunch programs. The management company charged “indirect expenses” to the program without prior approval, the audit said. 

“With the number of students the school has, it seemed very unnecessary and reasonable to have that many,” McFadden said.   

Failed IEP record-keeping and conflicts of interest

As Policy Watch reported previously [3], the McQueens have been dogged by claims that students’ Individualized Education Program 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. Financial records show Don McQueen and Cynthia McQueen signed the contract to hire Andrews at a salary of $65,000 a year. She reportedly remains employed by the school as a special education teacher. It is unclear whether the contract was approved by the school’s Board of Directors. 

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Cynthia McQueen

Cynthia McQueen told the charter board that many charter schools employ family members. “That is not abnormal for charter schools,” she said. “No one works harder than your relatives.”   

The questionable record changes made by Andrews had the effect of making old student IEPs look like new ones. Generally, educators must meet with parents and submit new data before IEP changes are made. 

Under questioning by the charter board on Monday, Torchlight board chairwoman Pamela Banks Lee acknowledged that the board had failed in its oversight duties and knew little about how an educational management organized worked when it contracted for management services with McQueen’s company in 2015. 

Don McQueen bought the building in which the school is housed.  The McQueens are employed by the school and own the management company, which is an obvious conflict of interest, Lee said.  “The board will ask McQueen to step down as the executive director of Torchlight and put in place someone who will help us to rectify these compliance issues,” she added.

Lee couldn’t tell the charter board how much Don or Cynthia McQueen are paid or whether contracts for the two even exist. Financial records show both make $100,000 annually. 

“I hired them 23 or 24 years ago,” Lee said. “We had a contract at that time and we’ve operated on that same contract.”