Education

As feud grows, Lincoln charter school supporters ready to take on Manatee school district

Hundley shares his goal for Lincoln Memorial during town hall

Eddie Hundley, the head of Lincoln Memorial Academy, held a town hall to address recent controversies and future plans.
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Eddie Hundley, the head of Lincoln Memorial Academy, held a town hall to address recent controversies and future plans.

If the recent town hall at Lincoln Memorial Academy was any indication, the Manatee County School Board may need a bigger venue for its upcoming meeting.

More than 100 people gathered in Lincoln’s cafeteria before Thursday’s meeting, and more continued to fill the seats and line the walls after 6 p.m. The gathering marked a boiling point in the ongoing feud between Lincoln and the school district, and several attendees pushed for a strong turnout at the July 23 school board meeting.

The school board is expected to discuss financial troubles at Lincoln, which have only added to the controversy that followed a revocation of principal Eddie Hundley’s education certificate. The Education Practices Commission, an independent group within the Florida Department of Education, upheld the findings of an administrative law judge that Hundley twice endorsed a former employee who was under criminal investigation.

But according to Thursday’s conversation between school leaders and community members, some believe Lincoln’s troubles were predetermined — malicious attacks on a school that faced decades of segregation when it existed as Memorial High School, before 1969.

“This is not far from that era, because Palmetto and Lincoln Middle have too long suffered,” said Christopher Czaia, a member of the school’s governing board. “Now the community wants its school. We have to fight for our school.”

“When time has gone by and we’ve had an opportunity to look at all the facts, look at what’s happened, we’re going to be on the right side of history,” he continued. “We’re on the right side of Mr. Hundley.”

The meeting came several weeks after the state DOE expressed concerns with Hundley’s ongoing leadership at the school. According to the state’s final order, a revoked certificate prohibits employment “by a district school board or public school in any capacity requiring direct contact with students.”

“At our last board meeting it was determined that Mr. Hundley will no longer serve as principal, but will continue to serve as CEO/founder of Lincoln Memorial Academy,” said Christine Dawson, chair of Lincoln’s governing board, in a June 25 letter to the state.

Randy Kosec, chief for the state’s Office of Professional Practices Services, responded in a letter dated July 2.

“Your response did not include an explanation of how Mr. Hundley can carry out his duties without direct contact with students, which would mean that he would not be on campus at times when students are present, especially the function of ‘senior level leadership and oversight,’” he wrote.

Speaking at Thursday’s meeting, Hundley said he kept relatively quiet during the case against him, but he called for a town hall after focus shifted to the school itself. He felt the district wanted to remove him from leadership before it lifted the pressure off Lincoln, and he pointed to the school board’s newest member, James Golden, as the evidence.

“I’m not going to say that it was Rev. Golden who had meetings with my board members today, and called them down there and tried to convince them that if they just got rid of me, the school could go,” Hundley said.

“Mr. Hundley’s characterization is mostly inaccurate,” Golden said on Friday. “I had individual conversations with individual members of his board about the financial difficulties of the school, and what must be done in order for the school to right itself.”

“One of the several matters that must be addressed is Mr. Hundley’s status with the Florida Department of Education,” Golden continued. “That must be addressed because we cannot become complicit in working with someone who is not, under law, able to be worked with.”

In a prepared statement sent on Friday afternoon, school district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said the district is responsible for ensuring compliance with state law and charter contracts.

“That includes ensuring that Mr. Hundley is not employed in a position that requires him to be on school grounds when students are present, as directed by the Florida Department of Education because of the recent revocation of his teaching certificate,” Teitelbaum wrote.

“This also includes that Lincoln Memorial Academy’s board will name a new principal for their school, immediately provide the proper financial recovery as described by the District and required by Florida statute,” he continued.

Accusations abound

Federal grants are central to the recent conversations about Lincoln’s finances.

Hundley said he received far less than the school district originally projected, and that district officials neglected to send Lincoln its Title I payments until December, four months after students arrived for school.

The school depleted its reserves in order to pay its employees, Hundley said. He then accused the school district of sending inaccurate data to the state DOE, causing a dip in Title I funding.

In past statements, Teitelbaum emphasized that Lincoln’s original projection for Title I funding ($283,000) was only an estimate, which was submitted to the Florida Department of Education via a grant application. After a response from the state, Manatee was forced to resubmit the application and the amount was lowered to $117,000, a number that later increased to about $150,000.

“It is the strongest desire of the School District of Manatee County that Lincoln Memorial Academy remains a charter school and that it educates and empowers students for future success,” Teitelbaum said in Friday’s statement.

In more than a dozen comments at Thursday’s town hall meeting, Hundley also decried the news media and its coverage of the ongoing issues, noting that constant attention hamstrung his ability to raise money or instill confidence in some members of the community.

“The stuff with me, it’s a distraction,” Hundley said. “I have a beautiful school that everybody should know about, and after today, that’s the only media they’re getting.”

With no foreseeable end to the disagreements between Lincoln and the school district, it seems an outside review may be the only hope for a consensus. Hundley filed a complaint with the state DOE in early June, regarding the district’s handling of Title I funds, and the state then notified Manatee’s federal program director, Elena Garcia.

In his June 13 email to the district, DOE program specialist Kenneth Edwards said the complaint would be handled by his office, the Bureau of Federal Educational Programs. He said the office would review the complaint, request documents from the district and determine whether there was wrongdoing.

Though the complaint included two school years, the state only requested documents for the 2017-2018 year, when the school was still Lincoln Memorial Middle and not a public charter school, according to the email.

“The FDOE will notify the Manatee County School District of areas of concern that arise from the complaint as part of the monitoring process,” he wrote.

At the town hall on Thursday evening, Hundley scrolled through a series of documents, alleging that the school district tampered with his federal funding, his teacher-to-student ratios and Lincoln’s budget.

“You can’t see that because I can’t see that,” he said, struggling to read the small text and dim projector screen.

Hundley had yet to provide the documents to a reporter as of Friday evening, despite requests made in person and by email on Thursday, directly after the meeting.

State Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, said he would make two phone calls after Thursday’s town hall. He promised to call the school board’s chairman, Dave Miner, and request that Manatee’s upcoming meeting be held at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.

Speaking during the town hall, Newton also vowed to contact the state’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, and ask him to review the documents.

“The data is their data,” Newton said. “If they’re reporting fraudulent data to the state, there will be repercussions. They answer to us in Tallahassee.”

‘Over my dead body’

Regardless of whether they resulted from bad intentions at the district or failed leadership at the school, it was clear that every hurdle caused anxiety among parents, staff and students at Lincoln.

“You talk about the children being distracted,” one of the guests said, addressing Hundley. “Just imagine the parent’s standpoint: we’re reading all this stuff and then your child comes home and you have to explain to him, and you don’t really know all the details.”

Dawson, chair of the school’s governing board, urged community members to share their needs and perspectives at the school board’s July 23 meeting. She said the school handled each controversy with grace, but the time for silence was over.

“I say to the staff members now, sharpen your arrows,” Dawson said. “It is time to go on the offensive, and it’s time to fight for the school. I don’t find it inappropriate now to be on social media and to speak your mind.”

During a period for questions and answers, a woman identified herself as an employee of the school district, and she expressed fervent support for Lincoln, the school her son attends.

“Our children need to know that people who look like them are successful,” she said. “People who look like them are educators. People who look like them are smart.”

“I’m not going to allow somebody to tell me that this school is going to be closed,” she continued. “Over my dead body.”

Hundley said diversity was embedded in Lincoln’s history, and he underscored the school’s strengths by playing a video of student testimonials at the meeting’s start. The students shared their passion for Lincoln’s many programs, including Future Farmers of America and the National Junior Honor Society, along with a variety of athletic clubs.

The school also added an extra hour to the school day, allowing time for both academics and personal growth. Hundley said his school offers college and career exposure, arts, life skills and lessons in municipal responsibility.

He also addressed the school’s recent grade, which dropped from a C to a D in the transition from Lincoln Middle to Lincoln Memorial Academy.

“I am the most proud leader of a school that earned a D grade — ever,” he said. “This is my D. This is my first D. Let me tell you, this D is for ‘determined.’ Sometimes it was for ‘distraught.’ It damn sure was for ‘distracted.’”

Hundley ended the town hall — about 45 minutes of talking and the same amount of time for questions — with a call to action, urging guests to attend the July 23 school board meeting.

“I sleep well,” he said. “I know what I’m doing, and I’m doing what’s right for kids. I don’t worry about that other stuff.”

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

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.

Principal Eddie Hundley is speaking out after the Florida Department of Education said he made "misleading employment references" for Quentin Peterson, who is now facing a child pornography charge.

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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.

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