Torchlight Academy board wants official break with management company

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“In the best interest of the school,” the Torchlight Academy board has asked the State Board of Education (SBE) to allow it to amend its charter to “officially” part ways with charter operator Don McQueen.

The board of trustees of the struggling school, which faces closure due to numerous tax and management failures, requested the change in a March 21 letter to state board attorney Allison Schaffer. Raleigh’s K-8 charter school has been operated by McQueen’s education management organization (EMO), Torchlight Academy Schools LLC, since 2015.

“The charter agreement signed by the school contemplated an extended continuing relationship with EMO,” wrote Stephon Bowens, Torchlight’s board attorney. “However, in light of recent events, the school board has determined that the continued relationship with OMU is no longer in the best interests of the school.”

Don McQueen

The Council of State is expected to consider the request at its April 6-7 meeting. Following the recommendation of the Charter School Advisory Board, the state board voted earlier this month to revoke the school’s charter due to concerns about its special education program and the management of federal grants; lax oversight by Torchlight’s board of directors and mismanagement of federal and state dollars by McQueen.

It’s unclear what impact, if any, the decision to part ways with McQueen’s EMO will have on the state board’s decision to revoke Torchlight’s charter. The school appealed the dismissal.

The school board apparently thinks, however, that a break with McQueen and a return to “independent operation as before the 2015-16 school year” will persuade the state board to allow the school to remain open. .

“The school is making great strides in addressing the concerns raised by the SBE and the approval of this application is one of many changes that will allow the school to move forward in the future,” said writes Bowens.

The Torchlight board was looking for new leaders to replace the McQueens. Policy Watch was unable to confirm whether a new executive and principal director has been hired.

Minutes from a March 7 Zoom emergency meeting of the Torchlight board show the board moving quickly to distance the school from McQueen and several members of McQueen’s family who were employed by Torchlight.

After walking out of a closed session, the board unanimously agreed to accept McQueen’s resignation as the school’s executive director and “terminate the employment” of McQueen’s wife. McQueen, Cynthia McQueen, who was director and superintendent of Torchlight.

The board also fired McQueens’ daughter, Shawntrice Andrews, director of the school’s exceptional children’s program, and her husband Aaron Andrews, a teacher’s assistant. It also ended a lucrative janitorial contract the McQueens had given their son-in-law to clean part of the school used for a federally funded after-school program.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction records show the McQueens paid their son-in-law $20,000 a month to clean up part of the school used by the 21st Century Community Learning Center program funded by the federal government. Policy Watch previously reported. These centers provide children from very poor and underperforming schools with academic support outside of school hours. Aaron Andrews’ custodial company, Luv Lee Sanitation, was responsible for cleaning the six classrooms and common areas used exclusively by the program. The contract was signed by Cynthia McQueen.

State records show Shawntrice Andrews altered students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents in a state-monitored student data management system, which is a violation of federal law. An IEP ensures that students with disabilities receive special education and related services.

Torchlight audits show McQueens received $1.8 million in management fees in 2016 and 2017, which were by far the two most profitable years. Fees dropped dramatically in subsequent years to $340,000 in 2018, $357,000 in 2019, $347,125 in 2020, and $365,922 in 2021.

A recent audit shows the McQueens, who were both employees of the school and owners of the company that ran it, gave themselves big raises. Each received $160,000 in the 2020-21 school year, an increase of $60,000 from the $100,000 each would have received the previous year.

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