Chaos follows attempted removal of Rodney Jones from school board meeting
One day after the school board moved to regain control of Lincoln Memorial Academy, school leaders have announced their plan to fight back.
The school board voted 4-1 on Tuesday night to terminate Lincoln’s charter and assume control of its operations, citing concerns with its finances and leadership. The board also moved to appoint “an appropriate person” as the interim principal, to “secure all charter school property”, to prepare it for the upcoming school year and to conduct a forensic audit of its finances.
Just before 3 a.m. on Wednesday, the district emailed a notice of termination to Lincoln’s governing board, and the district followed up in writing later that morning, said Mitchell Teitelbaum, the school district’s attorney.
“This is immediate termination and, under Florida Statutes, that means today,” Teitelbaum said. “That means, technically, their prior management — the principal and the governance — is changed, effective today.”
Manatee will continue operating Lincoln as a charter school, appointing an interim principal and an interim governing board, but its former leaders still have the right to due process, he continued. He said the school had 10 days to appeal, which would prompt a review by the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.
Lincoln officials intend to exercise that right, according to a prepared statement from Eddie Hundley, the school’s founder and, before his resignation on Monday, its longtime principal.
“The latest actions taken by the Manatee County School Board are another example of the unjust, unfair and overreaching acts against Lincoln Memorial Academy and the community it serves,” he wrote. “The board and founder/CEO are retaining legal counsel to appeal this latest effort to distract and mislead the public.”
Hundley’s statement came after a lengthy school board meeting that included public comment from dozens of Lincoln supporters. At times, the meeting devolved into a shouting match between visitors and board members, each claiming to know the best solution for Lincoln’s future.
“We are confident the school and community will be made whole again,” Hundley said in the prepared statement. “We thank the community for the undeniably overwhelming show of support at the school board meeting.”
Board member Scott Hopes made the initial motion on Tuesday evening. Describing himself as a “champion of charter schools,” Hopes said he was opposed to reverting Lincoln back to a traditional school, but he supported a change in leadership.
Hopes said the school’s financial plan was flawed from the beginning, an opinion he expressed before casting the lone dissenting vote on Aug. 22, 2017, when the charter was approved.
“We are in a crisis situation,” he said. “This has gone on for a very long time.”
Board member James Golden seconded the motion, taking immediate heat from those who viewed the move as an attack on Lincoln, which serves a large population of black and Hispanic students. Several public speakers insulted Golden, the only black member on the school board, calling him a “sellout” in one case.
Golden pointed to a portion of the July 16 email sent from Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, to Superintendent Cynthia Saunders and school board Chairman Dave Miner.
“Given the urgency of Lincoln Memorial Academy’s financial situation, if I do not receive a corrective action plan that the school board and the governing board agree upon by Wednesday, July 24, 2019, I will immediately establish a plan in keeping with the requirements of Section 1002.345, F.S.,” the commissioner wrote.
Corcoran encouraged district leadership to establish control over the school while its finances recover, “without interruption to the education of Lincoln Memorial Academy students.” He pointed to Lincoln’s high administrative costs, noting the potential for “waste, mismanagement and possibly fraud.”
In a follow-up interview on Wednesday morning, Teitelbaum said the school district requested a host of detailed financial information from Lincoln, attempting to form a corrective action plan, but many of the documents were never provided.
“I cannot tell you what Lincoln paid to whom, what their true expenses were,” he said. “We see only the results of their expenses, but we don’t have the accounting behind it, so how do you build a budget? How do you build a corrective action plan without the underlying documentation?”
Corcoran also underscored Lincoln’s continued support of Hundley, whose educator certificate was revoked in May. The Education Practices Commission faulted Hundley for the job recommendations he gave to a former employee who was under criminal investigation.
A revoked license barred him from employment in “any capacity requiring direct contact with students.” Officials with the school district and the Florida Department of Education notified Lincoln’s governing board of the restriction, but Hundley remained on campus, according to Teitelbaum.
“The revocation of my license was an action taken by an overreaching law judge that is being exploited by a biased school district and misinformed commissioner of education,” Hundley said in Monday’s resignation letter.
At the meeting on Tuesday evening, Golden said he wanted to maintain local control over Lincoln’s fate, but only until the school recovered.
“I do not think we should be running Lincoln Memorial Academy any longer than it takes us to get a board that will cooperate and work with us,” he said.
Miner, the school board’s chairman, said he weighed the consequences before casting his vote on Tuesday night.
“Statements and accusations that, somehow, members of this board or the board itself was out to maliciously do things for nefarious reasons, be it racial or whatever, there is no truth to that,” he said at the meeting.
Vice-Chair Gina Messenger was opposed at first, citing the need for more discussion, but she eventually voted in favor of the motion after hearing from board attorney Stephen Dye, who outlined the limited options provided under state law.
“We’re not trying to keep a building,” Messenger said on Tuesday. “We’re not trying to hurt the school. We want the school to succeed, and that is what I want to address.”
Board member Charlie Kennedy cast the dissenting vote, asking his peers to rescind the motion and to hold a special meeting on Friday, but the idea was soon shot down. Citing five years of experience on the board, Kennedy said the decision was larger than any he could remember.
“We can squash them with a hammer, or we can actually try to sit down and work this out,” he said.