Lincoln Memorial charter school leader must go, says Florida education commissioner

Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, has urged the school district to remove Eddie Hundley as head of Lincoln Memorial Academy, a Palmetto-based charter school.

Corcoran sent several emails and letters to the school district and Lincoln Memorial’s governing board on Tuesday, and copies were provided at a district press conference on Wednesday afternoon. He also sent copies to Ed Brodsky, the state attorney, to “keep him apprised of the current situation.”

“It is unacceptable that Mr. Hundley continues to be employed as an educator and I wholeheartedly support action by the district to rectify this situation by making every effort to have Mr. Hundley relieved of all responsibilities with Lincoln Memorial Academy,” his letter states.

District officials said they would ensure compliance with state law, but they assured residents that the district had no intention of reverting Lincoln Memorial back to a traditional school.

“We want to state emphatically that it is not the desire, plan or goal of the School District of Manatee County to remove Lincoln Memorial Academy’s charter, or to see it cease its operations,” district spokesman Mike Barber said. “In fact, our efforts are aimed at working with the school to ensure they can continue to serve their students.”

School leaders could not be reached for comment. At a recent town hall meeting, hosted by Lincoln Memorial last week, Hundley vowed to stop interacting with local reporters.

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

An administrative law judge, within the Division of Administrative Hearings, recommended that Hundley’s educator certificate be revoked for five years. The Education Practices Commission, an independent body within the Florida Department of Education, upheld the judge’s recommendation after a hearing in Tallahassee, and the final order was issued on May 13.

The order faulted Hundley for the two job recommendations he gave to a former employee who was under criminal investigation. The employee, Quentin Peterson was teaching in Sarasota County by the time authorities charged him with possession of child pornography, the result of his alleged relationship with a teenage girl.

In its final order, the EPC said a revoked certificate barred Hundley from employment “in any capacity requiring direct contact with students.”

“Lincoln Memorial Academy’s continued employment of Mr. Hundley flies in the face of all our efforts to provide a safe and secure learning environment for our students,” Corcoran said in his letter.

At the school’s town hall meeting, hosted at Lincoln Memorial on July 11, the governing board expressed strong support for Hundley. School leaders felt the recent criticism was dishonest and even malicious.

“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,” Christopher Czaia, a member of the governing board, said last week. “We’re on the right side of Mr. Hundley.”

In his recent letters, the education commissioner also underscored Lincoln Memorial’s “deteriorating financial condition,” a term used for schools that struggle to meet their financial obligations for three months in a row. Lincoln Memorial had a budget deficit of more than $251,000 by the end of May, according to district officials.

In an email to Superintendent Cynthia Saunders and school board Chairman Dave Miner, the education commissioner expanded on his letters. Corcoran said it was illegal for Hundley to remain in a leadership role at the school.

“I urge you, as superintendent and school board members, to address the serious issues of Lincoln Memorial Academy aggressively and with all due haste,” he wrote.

He said the school owed $60,000 to the Florida Retirement System, and that Lincoln Memorial assigned 31 percent of its budget to administrative costs. Its actual administrative costs totaled 41 percent of the budget, according to his email.

“When compared to the administrative costs for district schools in Manatee County of approximately 12% of the budget, the Lincoln Memorial Academy spending for administrators is not only disproportionate, but it suggests waste, mismanagement and possibly fraud,” it states.

School leaders have continually said the district was responsible for a change in the school’s funding, and that Manatee was slow to deliver the school’s approved money, a claim denied by district officials.

When it comes to state funding and federal grants, it’s true that Lincoln’s approved allocation was far less than its initial estimate, said Tammy Taylor, director of finance for the school district. Such funding is influenced by enrollment numbers, contract limitations and other factors.

However, Taylor said the school never changed its budget to align with the shift in funding, from the expectation to the reality.

Mitchell Teitelbaum, the school district’s attorney, said Lincoln Memorial was required to appoint a viable principal and to meet its financial obligations. While the district continually asked for more detailed information about the school’s spending and administrative salaries, it was often met with resistance, Teitelbaum continued.

“I will say this to you with the utmost certainty: we have a breach of contract and we have a breach of statute,” Teitelbaum said, speaking at Wednesday’s press conference.

School leaders previously said that recent controversies, including the financial troubles and the accusations against Hundley, are the result of misinformation and interference by the school district.

Lincoln Memorial’s chief financial officer, Cornelle Maxfield, sent an emailed response to district officials and their non-compliance notices on July 8.

“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.”

School board members will discuss Lincoln Memorial’s finances at a workshop on Tuesday, scheduled for 2 p.m. at the School Support Center, 215 Manatee Ave. W.

Corcoran said the district and the school had until next week to form a corrective action plan. Otherwise, the commissioner will establish a plan to right the school’s finances, according to one of his letters.

“I have no desire to dictate a plan to the district and the governing board but at the same time, I will not hesitate to take action should circumstances dictate,” he concluded.

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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.