An ambitious Raleigh charter school operator’s rapid expansion into the management side of the business has members of the state’s Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) concerned.
CSAB members are worried Don McQueen, executive director of Torchlight Academy, won’t be able to juggle current responsibilities with future ones, which could include management of several new charters seeking state approval.
One big part of what’s giving the CSAB pause is the poor performance of McQueen-managed Three Rivers Academy in Bertie County.
The school received an “F” letter grade on state report cards and its students did not meet growth projections. Only 8.6 percent of students were grade-level proficient in reading and mathematics. Meanwhile, 46.6 percent of students attending Bertie County schools were proficient in reading and math.
“Can you stand up there confidently and tell us that these 80 kids from last year are better off having been at that school and continuing with that school given that [only] six out of those 80 were proficient last year?” Joe Maimone, chief of staff for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and a non-voting member of CSAB, asked at a recent board meeting. “Are these kids better off where they are now?”
“I don’t believe it’s strictly about the test score,” McQueen replied. “I believe it’s about pedagogy, the culture, about the things we bring to the school system, the ideals.”
Three Rivers is the former Heritage Leadership Academy, which lost its charter in 2017 due to poor performance and a “persistent pattern” of noncompliance, according to state records.
The school was taken over and reopened as Three Rivers Academy by McQueen’s Global Education Resources, a management firm he owns with two partners.
As part of the assumption agreement, students were required to meet or exceed growth for the school to remain open.
The State Board of Education could decide next month whether to hold Three Rivers accountable or to allow it to remain open. The CSAB, which advises the SBE on charter policy and applications, has recommended that the school be allowed another year to meet growth goals.
“I don’t get to vote, but I’m troubled that we’re going to consider allowing this to continue at the same time we’re going to consider potentially opening some other schools,” Maimone said. “Don’s [McQueen] putting a heavy weight on his back here.”
Perhaps, McQueen’s load would be lighter had the original partnership that took over Three Rivers stayed intact. McQueen’s two partners eventually sold their interest in the firm to McQueen.
CSAB member Cheryl Turner said she’s more comfortable allowing Three Rivers to stay open than approving new charters managed by McQueen.
“When I look at this school, he’s [McQueen] now a one–man band,” Turner said. “He’s got a new school opening and he’s still got Torchlight and six schools on the table. I’m way more comfortable with letting this one stay open than I am with opening a new one.”
Under the best of circumstances, McQueen would have his hands full managing existing charters under his control, and as many as four others he could end up managing if they are approved by the State Board of Education.
In a report to CSAB, McQueen described a tumultuous 2018-19 school year at Three Rivers, contending that it was sabotaged by the school’s ex-leader, Kashi Bazemore.
McQueen contends the former Heritage leader paid July and August rents on the school facility in Windsor to force Three Rivers to find new space to start the 2019-20 school year.
He eventually rented a facility 17 miles away in Powellsville but is now trying to move the school back to Windsor.
McQueen also accused Bazemore of withholding student records and school buses, as well as conducting a misinformation campaign, telling parents that the free public charter required tuition payments.
The trouble in Windsor wasn’t the only management challenge McQueen faced last school year.
About 240 miles west of Windsor, in the Rowan County town of East Spencer, McQueen’s management agreement with Essie Mae Kizer Foxx Charter School unraveled after only one year.
School leaders accused Torchlight Academy Services (TAS), another management firm owned by McQueen, of poor fiscal and operational management.
Essie Mae officials said TAS failed to account for expenditures, pay its operating costs, follow policies, rules and regulations, and adhere to the curriculum adopted by the school’s governing board.
The SBE allowed the school to dissolve the management arrangement with TAS, but there is an ongoing disagreement about the cause of the breakup.
McQueen has said very little about the split publicly. But in a letter to Dave Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools and the SBE, he accused the Essie Mae board of “meddling” in day-to-day affairs, refusing to trim school staff to keep the budget in line and of being “unduly” influenced by Kenneth Fox, the brother of Tina Fox-Wallace, chairwoman of the school’s board of directors.
McQueen noted that Kenneth Fox, also a member of the school’s board of directors, has a criminal record. Kenneth Fox, the former mayor of East Spencer, was convicted of multiple counts of wire fraud while serving as mayor.
McQueen said the board did not go through proper channels to add Kenneth Fox.
As was the case at Three Rivers, a tumultuous school year did not bode well for students at Essie Mae.
Although the school did meet growth goals, it earned an “F” letter grade from the state and only 10.9 percent of students were deemed proficient in reading and mathematics. Overall, 42.5 percent of students in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools, where the bulk of Essie Mae students were drawn from, were proficient in reading and math.
Alex Quigley, chairman of the CSAB, noted McQueen’s record at Torchlight Academy where he turned a struggling school into a successful one. But like his colleagues, Quigley wonders if McQueen is taking on too much.
“You’re not Charter Schools USA,” Quigley said. “You don’t have a giant back office behind you. You started this with two partners and now you’re doing this solo.”
He said CSAB will be watching closely as applications for new schools managed by McQueen make their way through the approval process.
“It’s going to be hard to bring any of those applications forward without saying, ‘Can you take a pause for a year and get everything squared, get the new school open, get Three Rivers working right and take up another set of applications, or consider another school in a year?’” Quigley said. “It’s very concerning to me.”
McQueen said he’d be willing to walk away from new charters he’s been hired to manage if his presence hinders their progress.
“I understand the concern,” McQueen said. “I’ve told all the schools I’m working with now that if I become an albatross to your getting through this application, I can tear up your contract right here. I don’t want any school not to be open because of something we’re not doing.”