Audit of Lincoln Memorial charter school may cost $75,000. School supporters promise ‘war’

The Manatee County School Board has approved more spending in the forensic audit of Lincoln Memorial Academy, a Palmetto-based charter school that’s currently facing local and federal investigations.

The forensic audit was part of a lengthy motion passed in July, which included immediate steps to terminate Lincoln’s charter and relinquish its control to the school district. As part of the motion, Manatee also appointed an interim principal, secured the property and prepared Lincoln for the 2019-2020 school year, which began on Monday.

Manatee’s internal auditor — Carr, Riggs and Ingram — started its audit a day after the charter termination, but its review proved to be more time consuming and costly than anticipated, according to Mitchell Teitelbaum, the school district’s attorney.

The school board unanimously voted to expand the audit’s budget from $49,000 to $75,000 at Tuesday’s board meeting. The contract was under Tuesday’s “consent agenda,” a list of actions that can be passed with a single vote and no discussion.

Manatee also ramped up security before the meeting, issuing a vague statement on “safety concerns associated with school board members and/or meetings.” School guardians screened each visitor with a hand-held metal detector, while half a dozen police officers lined the administration building.

With help from attorney Christopher Czaia, a member of the school’s ousted governing board, school leaders recently launched a Facebook page and a website to announce the “Trojan War for Lincoln Memorial Academy.” Lincoln supporters vowed to attend every meeting after the charter termination, a last-minute addition to the school board’s July 23 agenda.

Lincoln supporters upheld their promise on Tuesday evening, when at least 10 people spoke during public comment. Many said they felt ignored, and that Lincoln was losing its identity as a community school, citing changes to the staff and curriculum.

According to district officials, Lincoln’s governing board mismanaged funds while the former principal, Eddie Hundley, ignored orders from the Florida Department of Education. The state suspended Hundley’s educator certificate in May, barring him from direct contact with students, according to a final order from the Education Practices Commission.

School supporters viewed the takeover as a calculated attack against Lincoln, which serves a large population of black and Hispanic students. The school’s former governing board — Christine Dawson, James Ward and Czaia — accused the school district of withholding or delaying federal grants, causing the school’s financial decline.

Both sides will have a chance to argue their case in the Division of Administrative Hearings. An administrative law judge will review the charter termination and the school’s appeal from Aug. 26 to Aug. 28, during a series of 9 a.m. hearings at the Manatee County Courthouse.

With its action on Tuesday, the school board authorized up to $75,000 in spending for a “forensic audit of the finances and property of Lincoln Memorial Academy,” a review that ends on Oct. 31. Manatee also contracted with Sylint Group for “IT support and preservation,” according to the original audit agreement, dated July 24.

With an expanded budget, the audit by Carr, Riggs and Ingram would include six elements:

  • Preserving financial and operational documents, including employee contracts and records.
  • Analyzing the different funds received by Lincoln and its use of that money to determine compliance issues.
  • Confirming the school’s payroll procedures and determining the status of employee payroll between July 1, 2018, and July 24, 2019, to determine “liabilities based on their respective contracts.”
  • Maintaining the integrity of hard-copy documents obtained during the audit.
  • Determining whether the employee withholding for payroll taxes and pensions were paid to the Internal Revenue Service and the Florida Retirement System.
  • Calculating the school’s liabilities based on unpaid invoices obtained on July 25, and breaking down liabilities between the previous and current school years.

The school board took control of Lincoln with a 4-1 vote last month, citing grave concerns with its finances and leadership. Board member Charlie Kennedy cast the dissenting vote, urging his peers to delay the motion and continue their discussion.

Several board members pointed to a July 16 letter sent from Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, to district and school leaders. He urged them to remove Hundley from “all responsibilities with Lincoln Memorial Academy,” and to rectify Lincoln’s “precarious financial state.”

In a letter dated July 30, one week after the charter termination, the U.S. Department of Education said it would investigation Hundley, the school and its former chief financial officer, Cornelle Maxfield, for “potential violations of federal law.” The letter, sent from the Office of the Inspector General, did not specify what prompted its investigation.

Lincoln’s former principal filed two of his own complaints with the state DOE. An administrative law judge found that Hundley gave two job recommendations to a former employee who was under criminal investigation, leading to Hundley’s suspended license, but he said the school district was at fault.

The district previously said it reported the allegations — that a former Lincoln music teacher had nude images of a teenage girl — to the state DOE on Sept. 27, after reviewing the images with a detective 34 days prior. State law requires the district to report “legally sufficient complaints” within one month.

While the district was several days late in reporting the allegations, they were “accepted by the Florida Department of Education, Offices of Professional Practices, as timely,” according to a past statement from Teitelbaum, the district attorney.

Hundley felt the district should have reported its internal investigation against Peterson, along with the related investigation by Palmetto Police Department, when they first began in May 2017. He said quicker reporting may have stopped Peterson from earning a teaching job in Sarasota County.

“After reviewing your complaint, we have determined that the allegations and information you provided does not fall within our jurisdiction,” the state Office of Inspector General responded.

According to the June 14 letter, Hundley’s complaint was referred to another office within the state DOE, and to the school board’s chairman, Miner. Despite five inquires made by the Bradenton Herald over nearly two months, the state has yet to confirm whether it would investigate Hundley’s complaint.

The second complaint alleged that Manatee provided “inconsistent funding” to the school after its charter conversion, specifically when it came to federal grants. In its July 8 response, the state’s Bureau of Federal Educational Programs said it would review the complaint during its ongoing “fiscal monitoring” of the district.

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