Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy of Wake County’s application to open in 2024 was unanimously rejected by the State Board of Education this month despite a glowing recommendation from the Charter School Advisory Board.
The charter board had rejected an earlier version of the application but cited a new, stronger application and an impressive assemblage of people to serve on the school’s Board of Directors for its change of heart.
The Board of Education didn’t explain its reason for denying the application, but Amy White, who chairs the board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee, signaled last month that she would not support it over concerns about founding director Kashi Bazemore’s leadership at a charter school, also known as Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy, in Bertie County.
It’s unusual for the two boards to take such starkly differing stances about a charter school application. Generally, the state board follows CSAB’s recommendations.
This time was different.
“I would have much more confidence given the fact that there’s a strong board and a strong application, but that particularly past practice is tainting my review,” White said during the state board’s January meeting. “I need to get that on the table because there were many students in that [Bertie County] school that suffered as a result of very significant, poor mismanagement.”
Less than a week after the state board’s January vote, Bazemore went before the charter board to share concerns about White. White was a member of the Wake County Board of Education when Bazemore worked for the school district as an assistant principal and had a “legal situation” that resulted in Bazemore filing a sexual harassment claim against her boss, Bazemore shared.
“She [White] would have been a part of that, and I just want to place that on the record with the hope that this is not a conflict of interest, but certainly with the hope that we will look into it,” Bazemore said.
Bazemore also said White has been supportive of Wake Preparatory Academy, a K-12 charter school located just across the Wake County line in Franklin County. Bazemore’s school would compete for students against Wake Prep, she said. Since Franklin County is under a court-ordered desegregation plan, Wake Prep must try to enroll a student population that reflects county demographics.
“I know that they [Wake Prep] need minority students coming from the northern part of Wake County in order to meet the requirements of the de facto segregation order that is in place in Franklin County,” Bazemore said. “I genuinely hope that has not played a role here.”
White did not respond to an email seeking comment about Bazemore’s claims and further explanation about the board’s decision to not approve the application.
However, charter board Vice Chairman Bruce Friend said his board also had concerns about Bazemore’s leadership in Bertie County. After going through the application process and conducting interviews, the board felt “confident this [Heritage Collegiate board], if given the opportunity to have this charter school, will succeed.”
“What we found in this particular application was a really solid education plan that we feel will work, particularly for the location and the students they intend to serve,” Friend told the state board in January.
Charter board Chairwoman Cheryl Turner said she believes Bazemore “gets it” and will not make the same mistakes that were made at the Bertie County school. Turner recalled that Bazemore had trouble getting the required documents completed and turned in on time. She also noted that the school had a weak board of directors that she described as “almost nonexistent.”
“That isn’t what we saw this time, this was a very strong board,” Turner said. “There were issues with following through and getting things turned in. I think those are the lessons that were most learned. I think that the school leader [Bazemore] now gets it that this stuff cannot be ignored, you can’t get to it later.”
The Bertie County version of the school opened in 2014. Control was assumed in 2018 by Raleigh businessman Don McQueen after state education officials found serious academic, governance and operational issues under Bazemore’s leadership. McQueen renamed the school Three Rivers Academy.
The transfer was arranged to prevent the school from closing. But the proposed cure for what ailed the school, proved to be worse than the illness. The state board ordered the school to close last year after a lengthy investigation by the Department of Public Instruction found many of the same serious financial and governance issues.
McQueen’s flagship school in Raleigh, Torchlight Academy, was also ordered closed by the state board because of many of the same financial and governance shortcomings found at Three Rivers. After the schools closed, state education leaders vowed to be more vigilant in their oversight of the state’s more than 200 charter schools.
Bazemore’s new application calls for a K-8 school that would eventually grow to 600 students in five years. Bazemore has said the school would primarily serve Black and Latinx students in northeastern and eastern Wake County, whom she contends are not adequately served by the Wake County Public School System.
Supplemental data provided by the Heritage planning teams last month show many of the elementary and middle schools in northeast Wake County have received state performance letter grades of “D” or “F.”
“We are simply looking for an opportunity to show what is possible for students who are failing to make growth at Wake County Public Schools currently,” Bazemore told the CSAB four days after the state board’s vote. “We’re talking about Black, poor, Brown and exceptional children and we want to be clear we’re not excluding anyone.”
Under state law, Heritage Collegiate Academy still has a chance to be approved. The state board sent the application back to the Charter School Advisory Board. The state board will take up the application again at its March for a final vote.