Where are your documents? Judge questions ex-leaders of Lincoln charter school

Repeating a question posed by the Manatee County School District for several months, an administrative law judge is now asking why Lincoln Memorial Academy officials failed to produce vital documents before the termination of the school’s charter.

Robert Cohen, chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings, will hear from school and district leaders through Wednesday, during an appeal of the school’s charter termination. About six hours into Tuesday’s hearing, the judge asked Lincoln to fulfill document requests by the school district and its attorney.

“There were lots of periods of time to respond to the various requests for records, and those records were never produced,” Cohen said. “I just can’t believe a school — that I know is full of computers and record-keeping and has a CEO and a CFO and an HR person — that there’s no records. There have to be records. If there aren’t records, the inferences I make is the records have been destroyed or hidden.”

“I want to make it clear that I have not reached any conclusions in this case, as to how I’m going to rule,” he later said. “But I know one thing, I’m going to hear all the evidence in this case and review all the documents in this case before I consider where the respective sides have violated or not violated the statutes.”

Cohen spoke on past requests by the school district, along with requests made after the charter termination and the discovery of new concerns.

Christopher Norwood, a consultant with the Governance Institute for School Accountability, argued in favor of Lincoln and its appeal of the termination. He said the school district took control of Lincoln and most of its documents, but he also vowed to produce the records when possible.

Tuesday marked the second day of testimony in a review of Lincoln’s recent charter termination. The School District of Manatee County says it continually tried to help Lincoln Memorial Academy right its troubled finances, while school leaders argue that Manatee intervened before the school had a chance to recover.

Earlier in the day, Norwood questioned a series of non-compliance notices sent by the district to Lincoln in early July, just before the school board voted to terminate Lincoln’s charter.

The school should have 30 days to fix issues identified by the school district, “absent any circumstances permitting immediate termination,” according to the contract between Lincoln and Manatee. Norwood pointed to a notice dated July 8, about two weeks before the charter termination, arguing that Lincoln was given a small window to address Manatee’s concerns.

The notice listed a series of requests from the district — dated May 30, June 10 and June 25 — and Lincoln’s apparent failure to provide the requested financial documents.

“Please comply with all district guidelines and contractual requirements going forward,” it states. “It is imperative that you remedy this situation without delay.”

During her testimony at Tuesday’s hearing, the district’s chief financial officer, Heather Jenkins, said Lincoln was given more than enough time to produce records and fix concerns. In a non-compliance notice dated July 3, the school district listed requests dating back to April, months before the termination.

“The information had been requested multiple times on multiple occasions, and it was essential for us to help them develop a corrective action plan,” Jenkins said.

Norwood also questioned why Manatee would terminate Lincoln’s charter during efforts to form a corrective action plan, which is required for schools in “deteriorating financial condition.” State law required Lincoln and the school district to work on a solution over 30 days, and when no agreement was reached, Florida’s education commissioner had the option to choose his own plan.

“It seems like the commissioner serves as a referee,” Norwood said. “If they can’t agree, he will come in and create a plan.”

Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, issued a final deadline of July 23, the same day Manatee terminated the school’s charter. More than a month had passed since the original May 29 alert, and the two sides were not close to an agreement.

“We received a final submission from Lincoln Memorial Academy,” said Jenkins, the district’s chief financial officer. “It was still not a viable plan. The information requested had still not been submitted at that point.”

The hearing will continue Wednesday morning at the Manatee County Judicial Center.

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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.