A middle school in Palmetto will reopen as a charter school under the name Lincoln Memorial Academy in August and while its leadership will launch a plan for success, it also has to face a complaint made against the school's principal.
Formerly known as Lincoln Memorial Middle, the school's five-year charter will go into effect on July 1. The first board meeting will likely include talks about Principal Eddie Hundley, said Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells, a member of the charter's board. He said the meeting has yet to be scheduled.
Hundley did not respond to a request for comment.
Hundley is accused of lying on a job recommendation for Quentin Peterson, who resigned from Lincoln Memorial while authorities investigated an alleged sexual relationship between him and an underage girl. Peterson, who was previously investigated and cleared of sexual misconduct three times, is now facing charges related to child pornography and sex with a minor.
Sarasota County Schools, which hired and then fired Peterson, filed a complaint against Hundley with the state on April 30, according to an email from district spokeswoman Tracey Beeker. In his recommendation, Hundley said he knew of no reason why Peterson should stay away from children, a statement that Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene later called "blatantly false."
"I think that as a board it has to be the main topic; it has to be discussed," Wells said.
He said the board will gather available facts and wait for the state's findings before any decisions are made. According to the charter's application, its board has authority to evaluate and, if necessary, fire the principal.
The Florida Department of Education reviews each complaint before it either closes the case or opens an investigation. A spokeswoman, citing state law, said she could neither confirm nor deny an investigation on Hundley.
How the charter came to be
Christopher Czaia was never fond of charter schools but now he's a board member for Lincoln Memorial Academy.
He served on the School Advisory Council for Blanche H. Daughtrey Elementary School when Hundley worked there as an assistant principal in the early 2000s. Czaia said their goal is the same now as it was back then: empower students, especially undeserved youth, through education.
"Charter schools work where you have great people," said Czaia, who helped form UnidosNow, an organization that works to uplift the Hispanic community.
Lincoln Middle's student population was 45.5 percent Hispanic, 31 percent African American, 20.3 percent white and 1.3 percent Asian in 2015, according to federal data. Nearly 2 percent of students were listed as two or more races.
In March 2017, the majority of voting parents and teachers said Lincoln Memorial should be converted to a charter.
The School Board of Manatee County voted 4-1 to approve the charter application for Lincoln Memorial Academy in August 2017, with the dissenting vote coming from Chairman Scott Hopes. He said the school needed to address "numerous concerns" in its budget.
Such schools flank the incoming charter school from nearly all sides. Imagine Charter School at North Manatee is about 8 miles away, and Team Success, Manatee School for the Arts and Palmetto Charter School are all within about 3 miles. All but one school received either an "A" or a "B" grade in the 2016-2017 school year, whereas Lincoln received a "C."
The middle school steadily lost students to surrounding charters, according to the application for Lincoln Memorial Academy. More than 200 other students were bussed from the Lincoln attendance zone to Buffalo Creek Middle School, "located in a more affluent area," the application states.
Czaia said he sometimes hears Palmetto referred to as "Palm-ghetto." He feels the community is often forgotten or looked down upon, and that its youth needs exposure to positive, like-minded influences.
Lincoln is a Title I school, serving many students from low-income families.
"You go to these children and you say, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?" And they'll say, 'I want to work in a restaurant,'" Czaia said. "They don't say, 'I want to own the restaurant,' or, 'I want to be the president of the United States.'"
When done right, charter schools allow teachers and administrators to be self-reliant, Czaia said. He feels minority students will benefit from an education tailored to their needs, including a focus on career opportunities, and lessons on the history of their culture.
The school is filled with history, he said. The school opened as Memorial High School in 1945 before it was desegregated about 24 years later. It later became Lincoln Memorial Middle School and, in less than three months, it will bear the name Lincoln Memorial Academy.
Czaia said he hopes the upcoming transition will help diverse students receive an equally diverse education.
"The point is, because you're Mexicano or Latino or black or what-have-you, I don't think we're getting the same great education for those students in Palmetto as you do for kids out east in the white communities," he said.
Charters — public schools operating under a contract with the district — are granted a lot of flexibility, but they also have a duty to perform well.
Lincoln Memorial Academy will give preference to students in the Palmetto, Ellenton and Parrish communities, though enrollment is open to all students within Manatee County, according to the charter application.
The school plans to serve its students through relevant instruction, social skills development, college exploration and career exposure. It expects to steadily grow from about 485 students in its first year to nearly 645 in its fifth.
"While the district accomplishes the monumental task of providing quality education to the majority of the more than 40,000 students they serve, there are cases in which special populations of students require more or different services from those found in the district's framework," the application states.
An extra hour will be added to the school day for topics such as college and career exposure, arts, athletics, life skills and municipal responsibility. The school is expected to partner with local parents, businesses and universities, and its staff will learn from high-performance schools that have similar demographics
In a welcome letter on the school's website, the principal said he sees excellence on the horizon.
"While serving as a school leader for over 20 years, I have come to recognize critical opportunities to make a major impact in the lives of students," Hundley said. "Lincoln Memorial Academy will serve as one of those opportunities."