This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
State program monitors scrutinizing Torchlight Academy, a charter school in Raleigh, found “altered documents” while reviewing data related to exceptional children, according to state officials.
These and other findings prompted the Charter School Advisory Board on Tuesday to ask the State Board of Education to place Torchlight on probation. The K-8 school enrolls approximately 570 students.
The Charter Board gave Torchlight Academy Director Donnie McQueen 30 days to bring the school into compliance with federal rules or risk charter revocation.
The altered documents were discovered in June, in a software program the state uses to collect, manage and analyze information about exceptional children’s programs.
Torchlight Academy’s program was being monitored by the Every Child Accountability & Tracking System because months earlier, state officials found the school non-compliant with federal regulations governing the education of children with disabilities.
After the altered documents were found, the state restricted Torchlight Academy’s exceptional children director’s access to the tracking system. The former director’s name is redacted in documents Policy Watch obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
McQueen told the Charter Board that the person in question remains employed by Torchlight but in a different job.
Sherry Thomas, director of the Exceptional Children Division at the N.C. Department of Public Education, told the Charter Board during the board’s regular monthly meeting Tuesday that one student’s Individual Educational Plan had been changed.
IEPs are required in order to ensure students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.
The alterations included dates and grades that were transferred from a previous IEP to a current one, as if it had been updated.
However, there was no evidence of a meeting to amend the IEP, which is required, Thomas said.
School leaders must meet with parents before IEP changes are made.
Torchlight’s new Exceptional Children’s director, Dustin Squibb, said the mistakes in tracking system appear to be “user error.” Squibb said an NCDPI consultant told him that the mistakes did not appear “malicious.”
“Based on my audit, I don’t have that opinion either,” Squibb said.
Use of federal funds also questioned
Staff within the Exceptional Children’s Division also found financial problems related to the school’s use of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) money.
The irregularities were found as part of a routine monitoring program in February 2020.
The state allocates federal grant money to schools to supplement state and local dollars used to provide the legally required free and appropriate public education to children with disabilities. The grant helps to provide services at no cost to parents.
Thomas said the state’s Exceptional Children’s Division is accountable to the U.S. Department of Education that the federal money is being used for intended programs.
“Every year when we complete this grant we must make that assurance on this document and application that we submit,” Thomas said.
Torchlight is reportedly eligible to receive $110,770 in IDEA funds this year. State EC officials are withholding the allocation due to compliance issues.
After being notified about the violations, Torchlight had a full year, from April 21, 2020, to April 21, 2021, to fix compliance issues.
“That year is a very long time for us to assume students are receiving appropriate services when we can’t confirm that through appropriate documentation,” Thomas said.
The original deadline for Torchlight to reach compliance was February 26, 2021, Thomas said, but was extended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Thomas said even with extra time, “we still don’t have compliance.”
Torchlight leader attempts to push back
Notwithstanding Thomas’s findings, McQueen insisted at the Tuesday meeting that Torchlight has no “unanswered of unresolved” compliance issues.
“There have been tremendous successes that this school has experienced,” McQueen said. “Why would this board be recommending revocation to a school like ours? We’re the only school in the Black neighborhood, serving Black and Brown children and successfully doing it. There’s no issue that we can’t handle.”
McQueen called Thomas’s use of the phrase “altered documents” inflammatory.
“It leads one to believe that there was some type of absconding of information, that we didn’t want to provide information for some reason,” McQueen said. “That’s not what happened here.”
Meanwhile, Torchlight’s former EC director allegedly misled state officials about whether staff had completed tracking system training.
The director confirmed school staff had completed the training in April 2020, when they had not, Thomas said. Records show the staff only completed the online training in late October of this year.
Bruce Friend, who co-chairs the Charter School Advisory Board, said Torchlight’s EC Department, didn’t appear to operate like a “well-oiled machine.”
“You gotta own it,” Friend said.
He warned McQueen not to blame Torchlight’s problems on the pandemic. He said the state’s other schools have also struggled to meet deadlines during the pandemic but managed to comply with the federal rules.
“The pandemic didn’t cause your EC director to say the staff went through ECATS training and completed it when they didn’t,” Friend said. “That has nothing to do with the pandemic. The pandemic didn’t cause you to miss deadlines when other schools met them. The pandemic didn’t create a situation where IEP files are being altered.”
Thomas told the board that the tracking system currently shows the school compliant with 18 exceptional children students at the school but noncompliant with 18 others.
The state still has not received the budget, contract and personnel documents requested months ago to determine if federal money is being used properly, Thomas said.
“We are unable to get a budget so we cannot confirm that a teacher of exceptional children, who is being counted as providing EC services within the IDEA grant, is actually being paid with federal dollars,” Thomas said.
“I am not able to release any federal dollars until this noncompliance is corrected,” Thomas said, “and we have a way to support this school to ensure that the budget is aligned and to ensure that federal dollars we are allowing are being used based on the grant application that was submitted.”
Previous challenges at other Torchlight-managed schools
McQueen’s company, Torchlight Academy Schools LLC, has operated several charter schools; the company’s track record is checkered.
As Policy Watch previously reported, the leaders of Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School in East Spencer blamed McQueen after its charter was revoked this year.
McQueen’s firm was hired in 2018 to help run the school. Essie Mae struggled academically, financially and operationally almost from the time it opened.
A year later, it received permission from the State Board to terminate its management agreement with Torchlight. Tina Wallace, who chaired the school’s board, accused McQueen of poor fiscal and operational management. The Charter School Advisory Board eventually revoked the school’s charter after it failed to submit the required financial audits for 2019 and 2020.
McQueen has also had a tough go of it at Three Rivers Academy, in Bertie County, a school Torchlight took over 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 earned state letter grades of either ‘D’ or ‘F’ from 2015-2019.
McQueen fared much better at Torchlight Academy. As recently as 2017, he was widely celebrated for exceeding academic growth expectations during the 2016-17 school year at the Raleigh charter school.
That success, he insisted, warrants more respect than he’s been shown by the Charter School Advisory Board. He described an unannounced visit in September by five NCDPI staffers as a “raid” on Torchlight.
“We have earned the respect, just the common respect for someone to pick up the phone to ask how can we help,” McQueen said.
Tuesday’s meeting brought clarity to the Charter Board’s decision last month to recommend against fast-tracking a proposal to launch Elaine Riddick Charter School in Perquimans County. The school 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 non-compliance with federal rules for exceptional children at Torchlight Academy and Three Rivers Academy is significant enough to deny the application.
The State Board could decide whether to place Torchlight on probation at a special meeting scheduled for December 16.
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