Recent rejection of proposed Wake charter reveals a system that can get messy, contentious and personal
Kashi Bazemore’s dream of leading a charter school in Bertie County came true in 2014 when she became principal of Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy (HCLA), a small school in Windsor that she helped start.
But three years later, the dream turned into a nightmare.
Bazemore had been late with financial audits. The school was close to operating in the red. It was also low-performing two consecutive years. There were charges of nepotism.
The Charter Schools Advisory Board (CSAB) cited a “pattern of failure” when it recommended that the State Board of Education revoke the school’s charter.
The state board agreed and started a revocation process that was cut short when the HCLA Board of Directors agreed to allow another charter operator to take over the foundering school.
In charter school jargon, such takeovers are called “assumptions.” State lawmakers approved House Bill 242 in 2015 to allow continually low-performing charters to be “assumed” by new operators.
Bazemore’s faith in North Carolina’s burgeoning charter school movement was shaken by the experience in Bertie County.
But, despite the failure, she’s still dreaming about leading a charter school. This one would be in Wake County.
Earlier this month, just shy of three years since the state board voted to revoke HCLA’s charter, Bazemore stood before the charter board to pitch a new version of HCLA in northeastern Wake County.
“We are coming before you a second time because we believe in the educational program that we have developed,” Bazemore told the advisory board.
If approved, the school would have joined others in the second round of the charter school application process. The State Board of Education ultimately decides which schools move forward, but often follows the advisory board’s recommendations.
Bazemore is chairwoman of the proposed school’s board of directors and a co-lead charter applicant. Her mother, Mildred Bazemore, a former chief of testing for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, is the lead applicant.
A skeptical reception
Kashi Bazemore’s presentation to the advisory board didn’t go well.
CSAB rejected the application, citing concerns about projected enrollment numbers and the school’s initial budget projections.
“I think this needs more work,” said advisory board Chairman Alex Quigley. “It’s not ready to move forward. We do not put schools in ‘ready-to-open’ [mode], then correct errors in applications.”
Quigley had questions about the 700, K-6 students HCLA projected it would enroll in 2021 in what would be the school’s inaugural year.
He said the application didn’t provide evidence to support it could successfully enroll that many students in its first year in a competitive Wake County market.
“Seven hundred is a huge number of students to start with,” Quigley said. “It’s a huge number to yield from a recruitment standpoint for a startup that’s not working with a management organization.”
The application showed that HCLA would need 537 students to break even financially during its first year.
Other board members asked about the budget. One noticed that it did not include a line item for payroll taxes.
The budget also showed the school would spend $150,000 on travel three consecutive years, then $150 in Year Four. Bazemore said that the line item should have read “transportation” rather than “travel” and that the $150 figure was a typo; the money would be used for buses, fuel and other transportation-related expenses.
Three of the proposed school’s board members also acknowledged that they did not have a role in developing the budget and hadn’t seen it until the Oct. 13 presentation.
“I think the concern is, at the end of the day, that the board is ultimately responsible [for school finances],” Quigley said. “So, when you have a board that hasn’t seen the budget, that’s a flag.”
A frustrated and angry applicant
Kashi Bazemore was furious about the budgetary questions, which in her view, came very early in the process. Schools are usually given more time to work out budget details, she said.
“This is direct evidence that CSAB needs to be monitored,” Bazemore said. “The way that they are authorizing and closing charter schools is so incredibly inconsistent. There’s no real standardized system that they are using.”
Bazemore added: “If they know that they don’t want to approve you, then they’re going to ask very few tough questions.”
She contends the board never planned to move HCLA to the next round.
“I’m an optimist by nature, and I believed them when they said we would get a fair shot, but after what they did to me and my board, I can say emphatically that they never planned to give us a fair interview.”
Mildred Bazemore fired off a terse email to the advisory board requesting the $1,000 application fee be refunded.
“I am very annoyed by all of this, the monopoly, the lack of standardization in evaluating schools, and the lack of objectivity,” Mildred Bazemore wrote. “CSAB had its mind made up before it came in the room today and that was obvious to our board members and others listening on YOUTUBE.”
The board pushes back
CSAB member Steven Walker rejected the Bazemores’ assessment of the process in an interview with Policy Watch.
“I think the Charter School Advisory Board has always been fair. It has always been consistent and has always done a good job of evaluating applications on the merit.”
Dave Machado, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, said applicants are treated the same.
“Every application that our office receives, receives the same statutory-required process regardless of if they’ve had a charter school before or not,” Machado said. “The Charter School Advisory Board is charged with looking at the application in front of them and making the best decision.”
There are no legal bars that prevent charter operators or leaders affiliated with past failures (like a charter revocation, an assumption or a finding of questionable financial practices) from applying for a new charter.
“I’m not aware of any such provision,” Machado said. “I think each application should stand on its own merit, and I think that’s exactly what happened.”
A messy affair
Kashi Bazemore had high hopes when she opened HCLA. She believed too many children in the poor, mostly rural county in the northeastern part of the state were being left behind.
But six years later, it’s Bazemore who’s out of the picture.
HCLA has moved on.
It’s now called Three Rivers Academy, and is under the direction of Don McQueen, founder of Torchlight Academy in Raleigh. Torchlight, whose past performance has itself been the subject of controversy, has become a major player in the state’s charter school management industry since it assumed HCLA in 2018. It now manages several charters across the state.
The assumption was a messy affair.
Kashi Bazemore was accused of not turning over all student records during the process — an accusation Mildred Bazemore sought to refute in a Sept. 2019 letter to Quigley.
“They were given all student records as well as the file cabinets,” she wrote. “All HCLA student records were given to them except for records previously requested by other schools and sent prior to that day.”
Kashi Bazemore also charged that McQueen entered private property to steal buses purchased for the school under her leadership.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant also issued a temporary restraining order against Kashi Bazemore as McQueen sought to recover furniture, computers, buses and other equipment.
A steep personal fall
As Bazemore sees it, she has paid dearly for pursuing her dream. Though she holds a doctorate from N.C. State, the outspoken educator is currently unemployed and believes she’s being blackballed by school districts and other educational organizations that erroneously bought into media accounts about her management of HCLA.
After having previously earned a comfortable living, Bazemore has now turned to the public safety net. She is enrolled in Medicaid, receives SNAP benefits and shares a one-bedroom apartment with her youngest daughter who is a high school freshman in Wake County.
“She (her daughter) has been through hell because of this,” Bazemore explained. “She went from having a mother making six figures, almost, since she came into the world, to food stamps and Medicaid and avoiding unnecessary trips to save gas.”
She hopes, however, that the fall from grace has become a teachable moment.
“I told my daughter that this is what builds character,” Kashi Bazemore said.