The questions surrounding Lincoln Memorial Academy have only multiplied since last month, when the Manatee County School Board terminated Lincoln’s charter and secured its operations. School leaders are now raising their own question: Was the termination legal?
Both sides will present their case to an administrative law judge this week, gathering at the Manatee County Courthouse through Wednesday. The judge, Robert Cohen, will then decide whether Lincoln’s charter termination was justified.
The school district employed Johnson Jackson PLLC, a Tampa-based law firm, to argue its case. While the school board originally cited Lincoln’s “deteriorating financial condition” and the state sanctions against its principal, grave issues have continued to surface, attorney Erin Jackson said on Monday morning.
Despite a growing deficit and mounting bills, the school’s leadership received large salaries. Lincoln’s former principal and its chief executive officer, Eddie Hundley, received more than $204,000 a year between his salary and monthly stipend, Jackson said.
Its chief financial officer, Cornelle Maxfield, received more than $100,000 between her salary and monthly stipend, the attorney continued.
Meanwhile, the school was buying its summer meals from Publix, Sam’s Club and other grocery stores not approved by the government. The school’s vendor, U.S. Foods, stopped supplying Lincoln with food in May, citing unpaid bills, according to Jackson.
“Food purchased from Sam’s Club does not include Child Nutrition labels,” the termination letter states. “Without these labels, it is nearly impossible to know whether the meals being served comply with the Department of Agriculture’s food and nutrition requirements. Sam’s Club products also do not contain any additional labeling or warning regarding the presence of allergens in its products.”
District leaders said Lincoln was slow to offer information before the charter termination, when the district and school were required to work on a corrective action plan for Lincoln’s finances. Speaking on Monday morning, Jackson said school leaders were more tight-lipped than ever.
Auditors are still trying to secure records from DeAnna King, the person who handled Lincoln’s payroll, and someone who lived with Hundley, the attorney said.
In their depositions, Hundley invoked the Fifth Amendment 46 times, while Maxfield invoked the same right 131 times, Jackson continued. Both cited an open investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General.
The attorney went on to say that Maxfield, the former chief financial officer, attempted to delete more than 390 documents as auditors tried to preserve the information.
“Maxfield’s efforts to avoid accountability go beyond passive non-cooperation,” Jackson said.
Before the original charter termination, district leaders pointed to the school’s unpaid utility bills and delinquent payments to the IRS and the Florida Retirement System, symptoms of a growing budget deficit. Manatee also cited the May 13 revocation of Hundley’s educator certificate, which precludes him from working on campus, according to the termination notice.
Manatee filed an amended notice of termination in early August, about two weeks after the original, highlighting new revelations about the school’s finances and operations. The district now has to establish why its findings caused a danger to the “health, safety or welfare” of students.
“Focusing on specific issues is like focusing on a specific tree in the forest,” Jackson concluded. “At some point we have to step back and look at the forest as a whole. Our evidence will show that, by the time the school board terminated LMA’s charter, this particular forest was literally on fire.”
Christopher Norwood, a consultant with the Governance Institute for School Accountability, is representing the charter school. Though Norwood is not a member of the Florida Bar, he graduated from St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, and he has prior experience with charter terminations, according to documents filed in the appeal.
Norwood said there was a lack of due process and notice before the charter termination on July 23. After discussing Lincoln at the afternoon workshop, board members added further discussion to the evening agenda, which evolved into a six-part motion on the takeover.
The last-minute agenda item left no time for public input or a proper board discussion, Norwood said, noting that board members never voted on the final letter of termination, which was prepared after the meeting. He also took issue with the updated letter of termination, sent after the original letter and the discovery of new problems.
“This is the first time this school had its day in court, and it’s unfortunate that the school district would give the death penalty to one of its own units, and not allow for an advertised agenda with the item on it,” Norwood said.
He also questioned the events leading up to Lincoln’s financial downfall. Reiterating past statements made by the school’s governing board, Norwood said the school district withheld or stalled the delivery of federal grants slated for Lincoln, “effectively sabotaging the school’s performance.”
“Any alleged non-compliance detailed in the Notice of Termination, if established, was due to the school board’s unwillingness, negligence, or confusion as to its responsibilities to release these funds to the charter school,” Norwood said in the appeal documents.
In its case for the dangers present at Lincoln, the school district also highlighted sanctions against Hundley, the school’s former principal. The Education Practices Commission, an independent body within the Florida Department of Education, revoked his educator certificate last May.
The state found that he provided two job recommendations to a former employee who was under criminal investigation. A revocation denied Hundley “the right to teach or otherwise be employed by a district school board or public school in any capacity requiring direct contact with students,” according to the final order.
Norwood argued that Hundley could still perform his job as the CEO of a nonprofit corporation, Lincoln Memorial Academy Inc., and he could do so without direct student contact, meaning “unsupervised access to students.”
Though the district will present surveillance video of Hundley on campus, “throwing footballs and addressing groups in the cafeteria,” Norwood said they were “summer campers,” not students.
“If you don’t want the school there to begin with, then you will use any kind of means to substantiate why you want to close it,” he concluded.
At the meeting’s start, Norwood asked for a ruling on his motion to dismiss the termination. In response, the judge said Manatee raised serious concerns about Lincoln, and he wanted to learn more before reaching a conclusion.
“I’m sure the school board has plenty to do without taking over a school they believe is operating efficiently and properly,” Cohen said.
The hearing will continue Tuesday morning at the Manatee County Judicial Center.