Case raises questions of whether charters are complying with state and federal law
Skye, a 10-year-old from Charlotte, was vomiting stomach bile when her mother decided something must change.
LauraLee McIntosh saw the health of her daughter, diagnosed with a rare chromosome condition and mitochondrial disease, declining steadily along with her weight. McIntosh blames the Charlotte charter school that refused to loosen its strict lunch policies to allow a modified lunch for Skye, despite doctor’s orders.
Skye, whose symptoms include neurological problems, could not adapt to the school’s rigid healthy and organic lunch requirements. Skye’s response to various textures and tastes made meal time difficult, so she all but stopped eating at Veritas, while school leadership refused to make adjustments.
“This child has no fight or flight ability,” says McIntosh. “She would just starve.”
Many of these claims, if true, may violate state and federal laws that mandate all publicly-funded schools, including charters, must provide an adequate education that meets students’ needs and encourages integration with their peers, experts say.
And this week’s allegations come at a tumultuous time for the school. According to state leaders, Veritas’ finances are stable and state reports show average academic achievement. The school earned an overall school performance grade of “C” and met state-proffered growth goals in their most recent report card.
But the school’s director and founder, Katy Ridnouer, confirmed last week that the charter saw 10 of its 13 teachers depart at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, along with at least one member of the school’s governing board of directors. Soon after, Ridnouer, dogged by claims that she botched McIntosh’s case and communications with teachers, announced her decision to step down at an unspecified point in the future.
Among McIntosh’s complaints, she says Ridnouer sought to deny admission for Skye when she won a lottery seat in the school’s first third-grade class in 2015, despite a clear ban on such activity in state and federal law. When McIntosh pressed forward with Skye’s enrollment, she said Ridnouer sought to dissuade her, claiming the school could not meet her daughter’s needs.
And when McIntosh declined to enroll elsewhere, she said Ridnouer made school difficult for Skye over the next two years, refusing to implement doctor’s orders for, in addition to modified lunches, inclusion on school field trips and needed bathroom assistance. Without assistance, Skye soiled her clothes, developed a fear of the bathroom and was often mocked by other children, McIntosh says.
Additionally, she says Ridnouer isolated Skye in a classroom with no other students to provide for more supervision.
McIntosh’s charges come amid growing claims from school choice critics that charters—publicly-funded schools with broad flexibility in their curriculum and staffing—may “cherrypick” or intentionally exclude some high-needs students, serving decidedly fewer low-income children and children with disabilities, populations that also tend to trail their peers academically.
School choice advocates deny such claims, but a state report this year noted charters, as of April 2016, served a significantly smaller percentage of poor children and a slightly lower percentage of children with exceptional needs—approximately 2.4 percent lower—than traditional public schools.
Charters have been growing in number since North Carolina lifted its 100-school cap in 2011, surging to include more than 170 today. Accordingly, charters’ share of public school dollars has surged from just $16 million in 1997 to exceed $400 million in 2017-18.
Following months of clashes with the school and fearing for Skye’s health during the 2016-2017 school year, McIntosh says her doctor ordered that Skye be “homebound” rather than attending school on a daily basis.
Public schools are required to offer services at home when children are homebound. But McIntosh says Ridnouer refused to include the homebound status in Skye’s individualized education plan (IEP), a plan for services agreed upon by a team that includes a child’s parents and school administrators.
Margie O’Shields is McIntosh’s friend and an advocate for children with special needs in Charlotte. O’Shields, who attended multiple meetings with Ridnouer, confirmed much of McIntosh’s account of her dealings with the school.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said O’Shields.
Months later, with Skye staying at home following her doctor’s “homebound” order, Ridnouer claimed McIntosh violated state truancy law by removing her daughter without an amendment to the IEP, although McIntosh says those charges were later dropped.
Despite frequent showdowns with school leadership, McIntosh says she did not consider withdrawing Skye from Veritas for two years. “Because I knew I was right,” she says. “And it would have allowed them to get away with skipping on services.”
But this year, Skye will transfer to a charter in nearby Huntersville that she believes is better prepared to work with Skye. McIntosh said she would not consider a return to a traditional school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, saying they were not a “good fit” for Skye’s needs either.
In a brief interview with Policy Watch Tuesday, Ridnouer declined to talk specifics of Skye’s case, pointing out she did not want to violate student confidentiality provisions, but Ridnoeur claims she never attempted to deny admission to Skye or convince her mother to enroll elsewhere.
“I have nothing to say, because that never occurred,” said Ridnouer. “We always told her that we are a public school and we serve all students.”
Nevertheless, Policy Watch learned that, following a formal complaint from McIntosh in March 2016, the Exceptional Children Division of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction conducted a month-long investigation of Veritas, concluding last April with multiple admonishments for the charter.
The school was told, according to Exceptional Children Division Director Bill Hussey, that it must offer concessions for Skye’s dietary needs and allow the child to attend school field trips with her classmates. Both conditions were met, he says.
“The accommodations are paramount in ensuring the child has access,” said Hussey. “… We have to remind them that is the law and that they are required by law to basically follow all policies related to special education and children and they are required to meet the unique needs of that individual child, whatever that might be.”
Because it was not included in McIntosh’s formal complaint, the probe did not take up whether Veritas shirked on “homebound” services or bathroom assistance, as well as McIntosh’s claim that Ridnoeur attempted to deny admission, although Hussey acknowledged his office is aware of similar complaints about North Carolina charters.
“It’s not frequent,” he said. “But it’s also not rare.”
In Veritas’ state application, Ridnouer said the school’s concept “empowers the scholar and athlete in every child to excel academically through daily wellness practices within a peaceful environment.” Offered as an alternative to the area’s traditional schools, many of which serve a predominantly low-income population, Ridnouer says Veritas implements a “whole child” approach, utilizing healthy lunches, classroom breaks for exercise and at least 90 minutes of exercise per day.
“We don’t have kids crashing in class because they ate Pop-Tarts and Kool-Aid before school,” she adds.
While it began serving children in grades K-3 in its first year, Veritas’ leaders planned to expand to grades K-5 by year three. Today, the school enrolls 219 children, drawn from diverse east Charlotte neighborhoods such as Plaza Midwood and NoDa.
Last week, Ridnouer downplayed the school’s staggering exodus of teachers and her own pending exit. Teacher attrition is a problem in many public schools, she says, and the job is particularly stressful for charters, claiming funding deficiencies in local dollars for charter operations.
“It’s just plain stressful,” Ridnouer said. “We have a very diverse student population. With that, we have students with high needs. “When you have five or six students in your classroom who struggle, that’s stressful for the teacher. At the end of the day, being a teacher is a tough job.”
Complaints about unfair charter funding are frequently made by school choice advocates, although a report by the progressive N.C. Justice Center this year claimed local charter allocations are, in most schools, comparable to their traditional school counterparts. However, charters do not receive state funding for buildings and infrastructure (Disclosure: Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center).
Despite their troubles and the loss of teachers, Ridnouer said community members should not question Veritas’ stability.
“It’s a valid concern,” she said. “I take responsibility for that as a school leader. I can assure them we are staffed with highly qualified motivated teachers and we are looking at our organization structure to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Ramesh Nayar, chairman of the charter’s governing board of directors, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Tracy Mott, the board’s former secretary, told Policy Watch in an email that the school is entering “a new phase.”
However, Policy Watch obtained a copy of Mott’s July resignation letter from the board, in which she wrote that Ridnouer’s “further involvement threatened the survival of our school,” citing exit interviews with teachers in which they described a “toxic” environment under Ridnouer.
“The information shared by so many members of our staff leads me to the conclusion that our board has been betrayed and manipulated by Head of School Katy Ridnouer,” Mott wrote. “There is no other explanation in my mind for our complete obliviousness to their struggles all year.”
Mott declined to elaborate on those issues with Policy Watch when questioned this week.
Meanwhile, McIntosh says she worries other North Carolina charters like Veritas are sidestepping the law when it comes to children with special needs.
“Charters pop up everywhere,” she says. “They receive the same state and federal funding, but they continue to believe they can create their own set of rules. At the end of the day, that’s completely wrong. If you receive state and federal funding, you cannot create your own rules.”
O’Shields agrees. “So many of (charters) have the mindset that ‘we’re a charter school, we don’t have to follow the rules,’” said O’Shields. “But you’re accepting state and federal money. You have to follow the law.”
Indeed, Corye Dunn, public policy director for Disability Rights N.C., a nonprofit that advocates for individuals and students with disabilities across the state, says the problem is more widespread than some may think. She says it’s “painfully common” for schools of choice, including charters, to seem to exclude children like Skye, a possible violation of legal protections for individuals with disabilities.
In many cases, she said charter leaders “counsel out” such students by suggesting to parents that their children’s needs might be better served in another school, despite federal laws that forbid such activity.
“It’s usually couched in an expression of concern,” said Dunn. “But it all amounts to discouraging a family from choosing a school because of the needs of a child with a disability. And that’s not ok.”
Dunn said, anecdotally, she believes the problem to be widespread, although state officials do not keep track of such discrimination claims.
“It’s not about good schools and bad schools,” she said. “People just aren’t following the law. There are a lot of requirements for public education that are waived for charters. This cannot be one of them.”
Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association of Public Charter Schools, one of the state’s leading advocates for the growing charter industry, declined to address the specifics of the McIntosh case, but agreed that charters operate under the same requirements as traditional public schools in meeting the needs of students with disabilities. “Since charter schools are public schools, they are required by federal law to provide the support services to their EC students that are identified on each student’s IEP,” she said in an email to NC Policy Watch.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Mecklenburg County Republican and charter supporter who says he spoke extensively with McIntosh, called the frequent complaints about Veritas Community School’s leadership a “red flag.” Tarte adds that “the system failed” Skye.
However, the senator says he does not believe exclusion, by and large, is common in the state’s charters, pointing out student enrollment is determined by a lottery system that should ensure fairness.
“I support charters overall,” said Tarte. “I think they serve a great purpose.”
Furthermore, Tarte says care for special needs children is a problem for traditional schools, charter schools and private schools alike in North Carolina.
“It just tears your heart out,” added Tarte. “It makes you sit and literally cry. The things (McIntosh) had to go through and had to endure to fight for her child to get an education. There are hundreds of parents like her.”
Tarte says the state needs an outside body to provide quality assurance checks on schools, as well as a comprehensive assessment of the state’s shortcomings in serving children with disabilities.
“I don’t have the magic solution,” says Tarte. “We all know these situations exist and we’ve got to figure out how to solve it. We should not be penalizing the parent for working their butts off and doing everything by the rules and they just can’t survive.”
Dunn agrees. “We have to measure better,” she says. “We have to know where our weaknesses are and where we need to improve before we make any grand plans or commit any resources.”
The idea resonates with McIntosh, who, today, says she’s happy with her new charter. She expects a smooth transition when Skye returns to school this fall, but McIntosh says she may still consider a lawsuit against Veritas.
Her goal? She says it’s to force public schools, traditional or charter, to treat children with special needs fairly.
“Because shunning them, shoving them in a corner and allowing schools to do this on any level is crazy.”