PW exclusive: Troubled charter school’s decision to hire consultant with checkered past raises concerns

PW exclusive: Troubled charter school’s decision to hire consultant with checkered past raises concerns

- in Education, Top Story

A troubled charter school in the Rowan County town of East Spencer has turned to a man with a checkered financial and criminal history to find its footing after a rocky first year.

Leaders of Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School introduced the school’s new consultant, Darius Little, owner and founder of Charlotte-based Little’s Executive Business Consulting, to the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) during the board’s October meeting. His hiring follows the school’s parting ways with its management company and finishing the academic year thousands of dollars in the red.

“We feel like with his [Little’s] support, we’re heading in the right direction,” Tina Wallace, chairwoman of the school’s Board of Directors, told state charter school officials.

Little’s criminal history dates to at least the early 2000s when he was convicted of passing bad checks while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, according to court records.

He has told numerous media outlets that the bad checks were “acts of survival” he engaged in shortly after moving out of an orphanage in Oxford.

Little told Policy Watch in an interview this week that he was transparent with Essie Mae officials about his criminal record before he took the consulting job.

But he abruptly ended the phone conversation when pressed about the details of charges he was arrested for last year, including communicating threats, trying to cash a bad check and a warrant from Prince William County, Virginia related to bad checks, according to police reports and officials.

“If you want to hijack my contract, then go ahead,” Little said before ending the call.

Little’s relationship with Essie Mae raises questions about charter school accountability, specifically whether charters should be required to conduct background checks on consultants before entering into legal contracts that require the expenditure of public money.

“I think parents in that school would assume that consultants are being carefully vetted,” said Natalie Beyer, a member of the Durham School Board, who serves on the board of directors of the advocacy group Public Schools First NC.

Little explained in an interview that the communicating threats charges stemmed from a Facebook squabble with a woman he called a Democratic political operative.

“I happen to be a Black [President Donald] Trump supporter,” said Little, a former Democrat who switched party affiliation and is now a Republican.

Little claimed the woman, who he declined to identify, lives in Orange County and had filed charges there against him after she learned he was about to pursue charges against her for harassing him on social media and at work.

The woman, who Little declined to identify, is identified in court records as Virginia Fitt. She could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

A police report was not available for the communicating threats charge, but online court records show it was dismissed. An official with the Orange County Superior Clerk’s Office confirmed this week though that Little still has an active warrant related to the same charge.

The State Employees Credit Union on Park Road in Charlotte filed a police report against Little on October 13, 2017, that states he attempted to cash a fraudulent check, according to a document from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. He was arrested last year on the bad check charge, but court documents show it was ultimately dismissed.

“I had a client who deposited a check with me,” Little said. “I went and deposited the darn thing. The check was not legitimate.”

Little said the investigator assigned to the case saw that he had a history of bouncing checks and issued a warrant.

Beyer, an outspoken critic of charters school, wondered whether Little has any experience helping charter schools, particularly one that’s struggling academically and financially.

“If the school is already troubled and operating well into the academic year with current students, I would hope they would turn to the [N.C. Department of Public Instruction] and other seasoned school experts for assistance,” Beyer said.

While charters are required to conduct background checks on board members, teachers and other staffers, no such mandate exists when charters hire firms or individuals as consultants.

“It’s left up to the individual school to seek the best advice they can,” said Dave Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools. “Our office does not regulate that. We don’t have recommended people they should use. That’s strictly left up to the nonprofit board to hire the best person possible.”

Steven Walker, vice chairman of CSAB, said he would be reluctant to take away the freedom charters are given to operate.

“I don’t know if I want to encroach too much on the autonomy we give to a local charter school board to determine how they want to do that,” Walker said, when asked if they should be required to conduct background checks on consultants.

According to Little’s Executive Business Consulting’s webpage, the firm specializes in business development, government relations, infrastructural management, marketing and political consulting.

Little said during his introduction to the CSAB that he would not be helping Essie Mae straighten out its finances, the area where the school appears to need help the most.

“I’m going to be frank here now, if they [Essie Mae] need to have someone handling their money, I want to make it clear to you all that my firm doesn’t handle that, so no one can use me as a scapegoat at Essie Mae,” Little said. “We handle infrastructure, management and helping the organization be better.”

Little boasted about having important, wealthy business connections in Charlotte he planned to tap to help Essie Mae dig out of its financial hole.

“I’ve spoken to people such as [NBA great and Charlotte Hornets owner] Michael Jordan who’s going to be getting with this organization,” Little said. “We’re going to be giving them some money.”

While in Durham, Little’s early scrapes with the law didn’t slow his ascent politically or socially.

His LinkedIn page shows that he worked as a legislative assistant for two state senators in the early 2000s and was a grant analyst for the Governor’s Crime Commission during the administration of Mike Easley.

Little’s criminal background was all over the news in 2009 after he sought election to the Durham City Council, and later after he was recommended for appointment to several government boards, including the influential Durham Planning Commission.

In addition to convictions for a bad check, Little, a former Granville County legal assistant, was also investigated by the N.C. State Bar in 2010 because of complaints he took money to do a lawyer’s work, even though he is not a lawyer.

Little was also charged with obtaining property under false pretense during that stretch because he didn’t return a rental television.

The editors of The Indy Week in Durham wrote about Little’s legal troubles during the 2009 City Council election in Durham in an editorial:

Yes, he’s done his time and paid his debt to society,” the paper wrote. “But considering City Council members have to make budgetary decisions, we can’t endorse someone who has shown such poor financial judgment. Little, a business consultant, deserves to move on with his life. But he doesn’t deserve to be on City Council.”

Essie Mae opened its doors in August 2018 full of hope and promise. The poor, rural community of East Spencer had been without a school since Paul. L. Dunbar High School closed in the 1980s.

Many East Spencer children are bused to neighboring Spencer and Salisbury and assigned to schools that are among the lowest ranked in the county.

But the school year quickly went sideways for Essie Mae under the management of Torchlight Academy Services (TAS) due to poor fiscal and operational management.

Essie Mae officials said TAS failed to account for expenditures, pay operating costs, follow policies, rules and regulations and adhere to the curriculum adopted by the school’s governing board.

“Our board determined that it would be in the best interest of the school to move forward without TAS as our management company,” Wallace told Policy Watch in late July.

The board sought and was granted permission to sever its relationship with TAS, which is run by Don McQueen.

McQueen has not responded to Essie Mae’s complaints – at least not publicly. He told Policy Watch that the contract between TAS and the charter school permits termination due to “mutual disillusion.”

“I don’t want to cast aspersions on the management or manager of the school board,” McQueen said. “They’re a new and fledgling organization and I think they have a lot of promise.”

The split with TAS opened the door for Little to step in as a consultant.

Walker said he and his CSAB colleagues will be watching closely to see what happens at Essie Mae.

“This is a school that we’re going to keep a close eye on because they are a new school and going through a transition where they had a management organization and now they don’t,” Walker said.