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State school board votes to strip Raleigh's Torchlight Academy of its charter


The state Board of Education voted Thursday to revoke the charter for Torchlight Academy in Raleigh.

The vote to close the school comes after the state charter school advisory board found that Torchlight had falsified special-education records and violated rules on self-dealing and conflict of interest.

The public charter school serves 600 students in kindergarten-through-eighth grade. It received its charter in 1999.

In a letter to the school’s principal Cynthia McQueen and board chair Pam Banks Lee, the Office of Charter Schools Director Dave Machado said the school violated the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act and state law in the administration of its Exceptional Children program.

In this regard, Torchlight’s violations were well documented by the EC Division of the Department of Public Instruction following its regular monitoring visit to the school in February 2020, the letter states.

The school’s violations persisted following a one-year period to correct its deficiencies. The EC program remained noncompliant as of the Charter Schools Advisory Board’s Feb. 28 meeting.

Noncompliance included but was not limited to:

  • The school’s failure to provide fiscal documents originally requested in September 2021;
  • Its failure to demonstrate federally mandated Maintenance of Effort and submit it in the grant system;
  • Its failure to demonstrate programmatic compliance due to lack of required documentation in students’ records. 

As for self-dealing and conflicts of interest, the school was found in violation for:

  • Hiring Shawntrice Andrews, the McQueens’ daughter, as the EC director  with a salary increase;
  • Hiring Aaron Andrews, the McQueens’ son-in-law, as a teaching assistant;
  • Cynthia McQueen and her husband Donnie, the school’s executive director, giving themselves raises from $100,000 annually to $160,000 annually over a one to two year time period;
  • Applying  for 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds to rent space in the school for its after-school program in the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years from SOD Holdings, which is owned and operated by Donnie McQueen;
  • Applying for funds to pay a cleaning contract with Luv Lee Sanitation, a company owned and operated by Aaron Andrews; 
  • The McQueens signing employment contracts on behalf of the school for teachers assigned to other schools managed by the McQueens’ education management organization.

The 21st CCLC initiative is the only federal funding source dedicated exclusively to supporting local afterschool, before-school and summer learning programs, according to the Afterschool Alliance website.
EMOs are for-profit entities that manage charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

In the letter, Machado also cited violations such as the school’s failures to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management and to maintain accurate student accounting records.

The state school board’s vote came after the Charter Schools Advisory Board voted unanimously Monday to recommend termination of the school’s charter.

The school remains open and will be until the appeals process is exhausted. As of now, it is unknown to the state if an appeal will be made.

If the school does close, students will be able to enroll in a district school or another charter school that has available seats, according to Blair Rhoades, communications director at the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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