Manatee School District says charter school has broken contract. Notices detail the problems

School District wants answers from Lincoln Memorial charter school

In six notices over two weeks, the school district questioned the finances, transparency and leadership at Lincoln Memorial Academy.
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In six notices over two weeks, the school district questioned the finances, transparency and leadership at Lincoln Memorial Academy.

The Manatee County School District has continually put one of its public charter schools on notice over the past week, bringing its finances and leadership into question.

Lincoln Memorial Academy, known as Lincoln Middle School before its recent charter conversion, received at least six notices since June 25, according to documents obtained through a public records request.

“Clearly, there’s a concentrated effort to suggest Lincoln is not in compliance,” said the school’s leader, Eddie Hundley. “While they have made six complaints in the last month, as opposed to their oversight that should have been happening all year. It should be an indicator that this is calculated.”

“They can send their compliance notices,” Hundley continued. “That’s a tactic they’re choosing to use. I’m going to choose to focus on making sure the school is the best it can be.”

In an emailed response, spokesman Mike Barber said the school district monitors charter schools on a monthly basis, and it reports to the Florida Department of Education when a school fails to meet its financial obligations for three consecutive months.

“Upon learning that Lincoln Memorial Academy (LMA) had been in arrears financially during February, March and April of 2019, the district reported that to the FL DOE and began working with LMA on a corrective action plan aimed at restoring the school’s financial solvency. As part of that process, we have provided LMA with clear documentation of our statutorily-required concerns.”

Heather Jenkins, the district’s chief financial officer, sent a notice of non-compliance to Lincoln on Monday, noting a “material breach” of the school’s contract. Between May 30 to June 25, the district requested a detailed budget and staffing plan from the school, along with proof that Lincoln paid its employees and the Florida Retirement System.

“Lincoln Memorial Academy was directed to submit this documentation in a timely manner as per the charter school contract and Florida Statute,” the letter states. “To date, there has been no response to these requests.”

The letter included four attachments, including a June 25 email from Jenkins to Cornelle Maxfield, the school’s chief financial officer. The district’s own finance director questioned why Lincoln failed to pay its employees on time, despite receiving more than $322,000 the same month.

On June 21, just days before payroll was due, the school cashed a referendum payment worth more than $61,000, collected through the district’s one-mill increase in property taxes. The school also collected $261,000 from the district’s pool of state funding, according to Jenkins’ email.

“The district is requesting confirmation and documentation that all employment contracts have been paid in full,” it states.

The state’s money was restricted to a dozen uses, including transportation, mental health and reading, along with nearly $201,000 in “discretionary” funds, according to documents obtained through a public records request. In a follow-up response to the Bradenton Herald, the district’s chief financial officer said “discretionary” funds could be used for salaries.

One week ago, on July 3, the district sent two other notices of non-compliance to Lincoln Memorial. The school has a duty — under its contract and state law — to meet financial obligations and pay debts in a timely manner, according to the letter from Frank Pistella, director of district support.

He referenced a March 13 letter from the state’s retirement system, sent to Lincoln after the school failed to pay two months of employee contributions to the Division of Retirement.

“We have made numerous attempts to contact your agency requesting the Florida Retirement System (FRS) monthly retirement report,” it states.

The missing payments would result in late fees and a penalty for a loss of earnings on the employees’ investment accounts, the letter continued.

“The school has employees in the FRS Investment Plan,” it states. “Retirement benefits for these employees are based on the contributions to their Investment Plan account, plus any gains/losses. The contributions are not sent to the employee’s account until the employer pays the contributions to FRS.”

In an April 2 email to district officials, Lincoln’s chief financial officer responded with proof of one payment, worth nearly $19,700, but the delinquent payments continued into March and April, according to another notice from the state retirement system.

The state then asked Superintendent Cynthia Saunders for help in a letter dated May 24.

“We have reached out to the academy several times regarding this ongoing issue,” it states. “Any assistance you can provide to resolve this is appreciated.”

The district again requested proof of the retirement payments while helping Lincoln develop a corrective action plan, required by the state DOE after Lincoln reported a budget deficit for several months in a row.

That, too, was left unresolved, according to Manatee’s correspondence with the Florida Department of Education.

“Lincoln Memorial Academy submitted a draft corrective action plan on June 21, 2019, but did not submit a final version by the due date of June 28, 2019, nor did they respond to our request for additional information as further indicated below,” the district wrote.

Adam Emerson, the state’s charter school director, then urged the school and the district to continue brainstorming a solution.

“Immediately after you sent this e-mail, the school sent what appears to be documents responsive to one of your earlier requests for information, which indicates that the school and the district are still negotiating components of the plan,” he wrote in a June 29 email.

And the school’s chief financial officer responded to district officials in an email on Monday evening. Maxfield said the school was “most certainly in compliance with the contract,” noting that Lincoln maintains “adequate and accurate records.”

“This recent pattern of inundating the school with baseless non-compliance notices is quite disturbing,” she wrote. “I believe that we can do a better job of communicating, and look forward to making strides in that regard.”

A school without a principal

The district sent another four notices between June 25 and July 3, each focusing on the school’s leadership.

Pistella, the director of district support, said Lincoln must hire a principal to lead the school. The school’s charter application listed Hundley’s job as “principal,” and his role as “Founder/CEO.”

He was also listed on the school’s website as Lincoln’s principal, but his online title recently changed to “CEO.” The change may have occurred after the state DOE issued a five-year revocation of Hundley’s educator certificate in May, citing him for endorsing a former employee who was under criminal investigation.

Principal of Lincoln Memorial Academy, Eddie Hundley maintained on Tuesday that he didn’t know about the evidence that ultimately led to that teacher’s arrest.

The state’s final order, published on May 13, said a revoked license denies “the right to teach or otherwise be employed by a district school board or public school in any capacity requiring direct contact with students.” However, it seems the order had little to no effect on Hundley’s ongoing role at the school.

“The specific responsibilities and duties of a school principal require direct contact with students and requires interaction within a school at all levels,” the district’s attorney, Mitchell Teitelbaum, said in a later notice.

“Naming Mr. Hundley as CEO instead of a principal does not resolve the underlying issues faced by Mr. Hundley (FS 1012.795), nor the statutory or contractual requirement that the school must have a principal,” Teitelbaum continued.

In a letter dated July 2, Pistella again requested proof that Lincoln had a principal, citing Section 11 of the school’s charter. Under “Required Reports,” the contract calls for a “current list of members of the governing board and principal.”

He sent a “Second Notice of Non-Compliance” the same day. Pistella again questioned whether the school would hire a principal, and he asked why two school employees — Maxfield and Hundley — were listed under the Board of Directors on Lincoln’s website.

According to the school’s contract, “No school or management company employee, or his/her spouse, shall be a member of the Governing Board.”

“School policies are decided by the Governing Board, and the Principal ensures that those policies are implemented,” the contract continues.

Maxfield, the school’s chief financial officer, responded with an email to the district. “Eddie Hundley and I are ex-officio, non-voting members of the board,” she wrote. “We will update our website to indicate that under our names.”

In his own email to the district, Hundley asked Manatee officials to stop using the term “non-compliance” in their letters.

“With regard to the school leader, as a charter we can choose the leadership structure of our school and determine the titles and roles,” he wrote.

Teitelbaum, the district’s attorney, responded with a letter the next day, noting that “Lincoln Memorial Academy remains in breach of contract regarding governance.”

“There is no distinction between regular board members and ex-officio board members,” he wrote. “Mr. Hundley and Ms. Maxfield cannot be board members in any capacity.”

Their profiles have since moved from the Board of Directors page to the “administration” section on Lincoln’s website.

A previous board member, Walter “Mickey” Presha, has since been removed from the school’s website.

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Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.