The charter, which opened in 2018, has serious financial, management and academic problems.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, the families that entrust their children to Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School school in East Spencer, a small town of about 1,500 in Rowan County, were urged to “enjoy” their holiday break on the school’s Facebook page.
But these are not good times at Essie Mae.
On Wednesday, the Charter Schools Advisory Board recommended that the State Board of Education revoke Essie Mae’s charter because it has failed to produce required audits for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. In the months ahead, the parents of the 100 or so students in Kindergarten through fifth grade who attend Essie Mae could be forced to attend new schools unless Essie Mae’s leaders mount a successful appeal.
“This is never a decision and recommendation that we take lightly, but we feel that Essie Mae Kiser Foxx has essentially violated one of the core requirements of operating a charter school,” CSAB chairman Alex Quigley explained.
Audits are important, Quigley said, because they ensure charters meet financial and operational requirements mandated by the state. “We’re not in a position to evaluate their compliance if we don’ have that audit,” Quigley added. “Just the sheer fact that you [Essie Mae] haven’t produce an audit raises all kinds of questions about the general operation of the school.”
SBE member Hilda Parlér put it more bluntly during a charter advisory board meeting held in November. “It really shows evidence of incompetence, and not to mention irresponsibility,” Parlér said.
She added: “Incompetence is definitely the star of the show.”
Essie Mae opened in 2018. Its first of two required audits is 13 months late. It was due Oct. 31, 2019.
“They have a fiduciary responsibility to produce an audit,” CSAB vice Chairwoman Cheryl Turner said during the advisory board’s November meeting. “They’ve been given way more than enough time. The first audit is more than a year late and it’s not like it’s imminent. I have some real concerns about this school’s viability.”
The school was elevated to the more serious Financial Noncompliance Disciplinary Status in October because it had not submitted the audits.
Revocations are rare in North Carolina. Of the roughly 200 charters that have opened since 1997, 14 have been revoked between 1997 and 2015, according to data posted on the NC Department of Public Instruction’s website. Most schools relinquish charters before they are revoked.
Low enrollment, as well as financial, governance and facility issues are the reasons most cited for charter revocations and relinquishments.
Under state law, the state board may terminate, not renew or seek applicants to assume a charter through a competitive bid process if a school violates any of several provisions:
- Requirements governing student performance contained in the charter
- Generally accepted standards of fiscal management
- Violations of law
- Violation of any of the conditions, standards, or procedures set forth in the charter
- A request by two-thirds of the school faculty and instructional support personnel that the charter be terminated or not renewed
- Other good causes that are identified.
Tina Wallace, chairwoman of the Essie Mae school board, didn’t return Policy Watch’s phone calls this week.
But last month, Wallace told local media that the school board has hired an attorney and will appeal the revocation if it is approved by the state. Wallace also blamed the school’s audit problems on an accountant whom she declined to name.
Quigley wasn’t buying that explanation when the advisory board discussed charter revocation. “Whatever it is, you can’t blame anyone but yourself if the audit is not produced on time,” he said. “We have hundreds of schools that produce hundreds of audits year after year, on time.”
Quigley said he is afraid that Essie Mae will go broke if allowed to remain open. The school has a $60,000 payroll, $30,000 in the bank and receives a $20,000 monthly allotment from the Rowan-Salisbury School System for the 99 students who attend the school. “If they lose some students back to the district, and if the district’s paying them monthly based on ADM [Average Daily Membership], very quickly, they’re not going to have enough money to make it the rest of the year,” Quigley said.
Enrollment data from the principal’s monthly report shows the school has lost 25 students since August. Essie Mae began the school year with 124 students but only reported 99 at the end of the first month of classes.
The school’s short history has been rocky, punctuated by questionable judgment on the part of its leaders.
In September 2019, the advisory board placed the school on “allotment restrictions” after school leaders were unable to competently discuss the school’s $1 million budget or explain why a convicted felon was added to the board of directors. The restriction meant the school could only draw 12 smaller monthly payments from the state instead of the usual three, larger installments.
Quigley directed the Office of Charter Schools and the state’s legal team to step in to ensure the school was in compliance with SBE policy, state law and its charter. “They’re going to ask you to provide some additional information, and you will provide that right away whether it’s budgets or contracts, etc.,” Quigley instructed Wallace during that September 2019 meeting. “You need to work with OCS to make sure we have a full picture of what’s going on financially.”
Essie Mae was placed on allotment restrictions a week after the advisory board agreed to allow the school to terminate its management agreement with Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy Schools.
Wallace accused Don McQueen, president of Torchlight, of poor fiscal and operational management. In recent media interviews, Wallace continues to blame the school’s fiscal and management troubles on that unhealthy relationship.
Essie Mae leaders, however, showed more questionable judgement after parting ways with Torchlight when they turned to Darius Little, a management consultant with a checkered financial and criminal history, to help clean up the organizational mess.
The school’s biggest failure has been the overdue audits, but members of the advisory board are also concerned about other shortcomings. Academically, the school has demonstrated little evidence that it can improve educational outcomes for its students, the majority of whom are low-income or from communities of color. Essie Mae is a low-performing school that earned a letter grade of “F” on the 2018-19 school performance report card, the last available for the school due the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only 10.9% of students were grade-level proficient during that school year, according to state data. The county’s grade-level proficiency rate was 42.5%.
“We have a responsibility as a board to take the necessary action to protect the children and families of the school,” said advisory board member Joel Ford. “Whatever action taken is not a reflection on parents and children. It’s a direct reflection on the leadership and management of the school.”
The state board took no action on the advisory board’s recommendation, and its members didn’t ask questions. The recommendation will be placed on the board’s agenda for action next month.