Feds open investigation of Lincoln Memorial Academy charter school, former officials

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into possible fraud, bribery and other crimes connected to Lincoln Memorial Academy, a charter school in Palmetto, and its former principal, Eddie Hundley.

In a letter to the Manatee County School District, dated July 30, an investigator with the DOE’s Office of the Inspector General requested the district provide financial records and other documents connected to the school, Hundley and Cornelle Maxfield, the school’s former chief financial officer.

Hundley declined to comment on Thursday morning, citing the recommendation of an attorney, and Maxfield could not be reached.

“Our office currently has an open investigation ... into the former entity known as Lincoln Memorial Academy (LMA) Charter School and the following individual(s) Eddie Hundley and Cornelle Maxfield for potential violations of federal law,” the letter states.

The letter, sent from Special Agent Christopher Hessberger to school district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum, went on to list the potential crimes, including fraud, embezzlement, mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

The agent requested Lincoln’s charter application, a list of all its board members and the personnel files for Hundley and Maxfield, along with an accounting of all federal, state and local funds received by the school.

He also asked for various bank records, a list of electronic equipment and “all other relevant documentation your institution feels would assist with this investigation.”

Investigators contacted the school district and visited on July 29, just before they announced an investigation and made requests, said Teitelbaum, speaking at a news conference on Thursday afternoon.

“At no point in time was a complaint ever filed from the School District of Manatee County or its particular board members to any federal agency, requesting intervention,” he said.

CJ Czaia, a member of the school’s ousted governing board, was skeptical of the federal investigation. He said he felt Manatee was unhappy with Lincoln’s conversion to a charter, and despite Thursday’s statements from the district, he believes the investigation was premeditated.

“There’s other litigation that will come from this,” he said. “A lawsuit, maybe from teachers, maybe from Mr. Hundley. I don’t know what they’re doing. In my humble opinion as an attorney, there are plenty of grounds. This is why they’re desperate to find something wrong. This is why they’re so desperate to bring the feds in, to quash this revolt.”

The school board voted last week to resume control of Lincoln and remove its governing board, citing problems with Lincoln’s finances and its leadership. District officials vowed to keep operating the campus as a charter school.

Czaia has maintained that sanctions against Lincoln and Hundley, its former principal, were the result of malice and misinformation, aimed at a school that faced segregation until 1969. He said the former governing board would appeal the school board’s decision on Thursday.

“We are really fighting for our community, for our African American community, for our Latino community,” Czaia said. “We don’t really have a voice. We’re fighting for us in Palmetto.”

The school board’s decision came shortly after the Florida Department of Education raised similar concerns about Lincoln’s operations, highlighted in a July 16 letter sent from Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, to district officials.

“I am disappointed in the lack of cooperation from Lincoln Memorial Academy up to this point but I am optimistic that with the hard work of the district and the encouragement of the Department of Education, a path forward that focuses on the best interests of the students can be developed,” he wrote.

Corcoran urged the school district and Lincoln’s governing board — made up of Czaia, Christine Dawson and James Ward — to separate Hundley from “all responsibilities with Lincoln Memorial Academy,” citing state sanctions against the former principal.

Former board member Walter “Mickey” Presha was removed from the school’s website as of early July, and Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells resigned from the board on July 25, 2018, when a complaint was still pending against Hundley.

In its final order, issued May 13, the Florida Education Practices Commission revoked Hundley’s educator certificate for five years, upholding the recommendation of an administrative law judge. The judge found that Hundley twice endorsed a former employee who was under criminal investigation.

The order said a revoked license barred him from employment with a public school “in any capacity requiring direct contact with students.” Though he resigned as principal, Hundley retained the title of founder and chief executive officer, remaining on campus, according to past statements from the district.

Florida’s education commissioner also called for a solution to Lincoln’s “precarious financial state,” citing a deficit of more than $251,000 as of late May. Corcoran vowed to intervene if the district and the school failed to agree on a corrective action plan, which was already in the works for more than a month.

District officials continually said that Lincoln failed to provide needed documents for the plan, while its governing board accused the district of obstructing — and not collaborating — with the school.

Hundley filed his own complaint with the Florida Department of Education on June 5. He said the district withheld or delayed the school’s federal grants, and that Lincoln received far less than Manatee projected at the start.

In a July 8 response, the Florida Bureau of Federal Educational Programs said it would review the complaint as part of the ongoing “programmatic and fiscal monitoring” in the school district.

“The FDOE will notify Lincoln Memorial Academy and the Manatee County School District of areas of concern that arise from the complaint as a part of the monitoring process,” the response states.

At its meeting on July 23, the Manatee County School Board voted 4-1 to terminate Lincoln’s contract and continue its operations as a charter, while also calling for an audit and immediate action to “secure all charter school property.” Board member Charlie Kennedy cast the dissenting vote, calling for more discussion.

But despite the continued hurdles, many parents, students and Lincoln employees have remained fervent in their support of Hundley and the school.

In a video posted to Facebook on Monday, former Manatee NAACP president Rodney Jones called for an outspoken crowd at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Police escorted Jones from the meeting at the request of Chairman Dave Miner, who warned guests to speak only on the district budget, the purpose of Tuesday’s meeting.

“I don’t even know what the subject matter of the meeting is, but we’re going to be there,” Jones said in Monday’s video. “We’re going to have representation from the community every single school board meeting.”

“We at least want 40 people to sign up tomorrow,” he continued. “If 40 people take three minutes each, guess what, that’s two hours worth of time they’ve lost. We’re going to make them earn them paychecks.”

The future of Lincoln Memorial Academy

The future of Lincoln is uncertain, but it’s clear the school is facing a major shakeup as the new school year approaches.

School employees received a memo from Teitelbaum, the district’s attorney, dated July 30, notifying staff of a change in curriculum. Total Life Preparation was the foundation of Lincoln’s curriculum, as was LEAD (a program for personal and professional development) and CALM (a program for athletics and leadership education).

Addressing employees, the memo asked staff members not to “utilize, incorporate or reference any of the materials,” citing issues with “copyright laws, licensing requirements and restrictions.”

“A violation of this notice and directive could result in further action,” it continued.

When it comes to an academic overhaul, district officials have pointed to the school’s most recent grade, which slipped from a C to a D in the previous school year. Lincoln’s interim principal, Ronnie King, said he would maintain the school’s existing programs and courses whenever possible.

“If there’s some tweaks that need to be made due to compliance, then we’ll do that, but the goal is to maintain our momentum going forward,” he said in a recent interview.

And at Thursday’s news conference, a reporter asked if all existing employees would remain at the school. Teitelbaum said he couldn’t “speak in absolutes” or answer for “all teachers.”

“To be a teacher you must be qualified,” he said. “You must be certified to be a teacher, so only those individuals that have proper certification, and we have a proper allocation. If you have too many staff members allocated to a school, you will not be able to substantiate and sustain an over-staffing issue.”

“If they have employees that staffing will not support, then our human resources department is working with those employees to find them other positions within the school district,” spokesman Mike Barber continued.

Barber said the district intended to continue operating Lincoln as a charter school, and members of the school board have asked that Lincoln’s governing board be staffed with community members.

Barber went on to highlight two dates for interested residents. Lincoln will hold an open house from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 6, and a sixth grade orientation from 9 a.m. to noon on Aug. 8.

“The school district is actively working with the school as we speak, to make sure that Lincoln is open and ready to serve students on Monday, Aug. 12, the first day of school,” he said.

Staff writer Mark Young contributed to this story.

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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.
Breaking News/Real Time Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been with the Bradenton Herald since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years, including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and for beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.
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