This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

Three Rivers Academy was ordered closed by the State Board of Education on Thursday following a lengthy state investigation that found academic, fiscal, and governance shortcomings at the low-performing school of about 80 students in Bertie County.

The State Board’s vote came on the heels of the Charter School Advisory Board’s (CSAB) recommendation that it terminate Three Rivers’ charter.

“When a recommendation comes from the Charter School Advisory Board to the State Board of Education, we take it very seriously,” said State Board member Amy White, chairwoman of the board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee.

Charter School Advisory Board Chairwoman Cheryl Turner said Monday that several failures led to the board’s recommendation to close the school:

  • Data shows 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.

Turner told the State Board on Wednesday that Three Rivers has “so many problems” that the Charter Board no longer believed it should “continue to function as a place for students.”

“We felt like the students were disadvantaged to be there,” Turner said.

And a member of the school’s board of director’s admission Monday that he was not aware of the school’s many problems was particularly disturbing, Turner said.

“What that said to us is that the board was not providing oversight at all and the charter goes to the board,” Turner said. “It does not go to the management company. We hold the board responsible for managing that management company.”

Since 1998, 48 charter schools have voluntarily relinquished their charters, one has been assumed by another non-profit board (Three Rivers), 10 have been non-renewed, and 17 charters have been revoked by the State Board.

Three Rivers is managed by charter operator Don McQueen’s Torchlight Academy Schools LLC. The management firm can appeal the decision to a State Board panel, and then in court if not satisfied with the outcome. McQueen could not be reached for comment Thursday.

McQueen’s flagship school, Torchlight Academy, a K-8 school of more than 500 students in Raleigh, is also under intense state scrutiny due to abuses in its exceptional children program, which serves students with disabilities.

McQueen took over Three Rivers via a contentious assumption as part of a private management group called Global Education Resources. The group dissolved, leaving McQueen to manage it alone.

Three Rivers was previously called Heritage Leadership Academy. The school lost its charter due to low academic performance and non-compliance with charter rules and regulations. It has earned state letter grades of either D or F from 2015-2019.

‘Misuse’ of funds

On Thursday, the State Board announced that Torchlight Academy failed to correct deficiencies found by state monitors in the school’s special education program by the Jan. 5 deadline the board set last month.

It asked the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) to continue its investigation into the program as well as McQueen’s possible “misuse or misappropriation for personal use” of state and federal dollars, including grant money and “potential conflicts of interest” involving Don McQueen and wife Cynthia McQueen acting on behalf or in lieu of the school’s board of directors in ways that “benefitted them personally.”

The State Board ordered all federal funds under McQueen’s control temporarily frozen while the CSAB conducts its investigation. The school will continue to receive state money in monthly installments.

After its investigation, the Charter Board could recommend that Torchlight Academy be closed, or other appropriate sanctions are handed down, White said.

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

Similar issues were found at Three Rivers.

Sherry Thomas, director of the Exceptional Children’s Division at the State Department of Public Instruction, told the Charter Board on Monday that monitors could not verify whether students received necessary services.

Thomas said monitors observed virtual instruction for special education services that did not look like it “aligned with what we were seeing in ECATS (Every Child Accountability &Tracking System) as the required service delivery.”

ECATS is the program used to manage and analyze exceptional children’s data.

“That’s a red flag for exceptional children; that what is on paper is not being implemented or what is being implemented is not being properly documented on the student’s schedule or in the student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program),” Thomas said.

A dramatic fall

Thursday’s ruling by the State Board represents a dramatic fall for Don McQueen who on a single day saw one of the charter schools he managed ordered closed and the other hanging on by a thread.

A few years ago, McQueen who is Black, had friends in high places in the state charter school community. Supporters saw him as someone who could bring diversity to a state where most charter management firms are led by whites.

He boasted loudly and often about the academic success of Torchlight students who a few years ago ranked No. 1 in academic growth among all charter schools in the state.

Perhaps emboldened by success at Torchlight, McQueen developed big plans to expand his charter management operation to replicate Torchlight’s academic program.

In 2019, McQueen’s firm was listed as the operator on five charter applications, none of which were approved by CSAB or the State Board.

McQueen had added Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School in Rowan County to his management portfolio. CSAB members expressed concern about him taking on additional schools because he had quickly become embroiled in a management dispute with Essie Mae leaders. 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.

In November, concerns about McQueen’s noncompliance with federal regulations derailed the fast-track application to launch Elaine Riddick Charter School in Perquimans County. 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.

On Thursday, the State Board upheld the Charter Board’s recommendation to deny Elaine Riddick’s fast-track.

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