Education

Lincoln charter school finishes last day of hearings. What happens next?

A judge will decide the fate of Lincoln Memorial Academy by the end of next month, after the recent conclusion of a four-day hearing.

Citing troubled finances and leadership, the school board voted 4-1 to assume control of Lincoln, a Palmetto-based charter school, in late July. While board members felt the campus was in dire straights, others felt the board trampled on Lincoln’s due process rights.

The past month was ripe with accusations and finger-pointing between Lincoln and the School District of Manatee County. Their grievances were dissected at the Manatee County Judicial Center from Monday to Thursday, during an appeal of Lincoln’s charter termination.

“There’s plenty of evidence here to make a ruling one way or the other, once it’s sifted through,” said Robert Cohen, director and chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings.

District officials said mismanagement and defiance caused the school’s downfall, and that Lincoln was far beyond repair or second chances. The school’s former leaders believe Manatee feigned concern during the charter takeover, while it had no regard for Lincoln in the past year — it’s first year as a charter school.

Elena Garcia, the director of federal programs and grants, testified on a key issue Thursday morning. Why did Lincoln receive $133,000 less than its original estimate for Title I grants, a federal source of money, and why wasn’t the money issued until December, months after the start of school?

She said the school received a new ID number from the Florida Department of Education during its conversion to a charter, essentially making it a new school. Though it was historically a Title I school, Lincoln had to prove its eligibility in the new school year, which includes a “poverty rate” of 75 percent.

“Because they were a new school, we’re anticipating they would be a Title I school, but we can’t be sure,” Garcia said.

Garcia said her team started planning with Lincoln after its charter approval, months before the start of school. The school, she said, was continually warned that estimates could change, and to not rely on federal funding for its main operations.

After it submitted the district-wide grant application in July 2018, the district received feedback from the state DOE in September. The state said Lincoln couldn’t use a special “1.6 multiplier” in its first year as a new school, causing the estimate to drop.

“I had asked the Department of Education to explain this to LMA, because they were going to have a hard time swallowing the fact that we couldn’t use the multiplier,” Garcia said, explaining a joint call between Lincoln and state officials.

The school district sent a revised grant application and then advanced Lincoln approximately $15,000, assuming it would still be a Title I school, Garcia continued. The district received updated data in November, showing that Lincoln fell just below the poverty threshold.

Garcia said the district was finally able to secure Lincoln’s funding by December, when data showed Lincoln’s poverty rate above 75 percent. Even then, questions remained.

“It did strike me as oddly curious that on one day they were 72 percent and within a week they were 82 percent,” Garcia said.

She was then questioned by Christopher Norwood, a consultant who represented Lincoln during the appeal hearings. How, he asked, could the head of federal programs include the vital “1.6 multiplier” in Lincoln’s original projection, causing an increased estimate, when Lincoln was ineligible for the bonus?

“In relation to a conversion charter school, we made an error in our prediction,” Garcia responded.

Eddie Hundley, the school’s former principal and the chief executive officer of Lincoln Memorial Academy Inc., testified on Wednesday evening. According to his testimony, money only started flowing to Lincoln after he complained to state’s education department.

Hundley questioned the data cited by district officials, and he asked how Lincoln’s poverty rate could fall below the requirement, despite having students who remained in the transition from Lincoln Memorial Middle to Lincoln Memorial Academy.

Lincoln supporters highlighted the changes and delays in funding, but it’s unclear whether the difference in Title I funding — about $133,000 — would have changed the outcome.

The school district’s internal auditor published a review of the school on Aug. 22, about one month after the charter termination, outlining grave problems. Lincoln had more than $1.5 million in liabilities between outstanding invoices, high-interest loans and unpaid salaries, according to Carr, Riggs and Ingram.

The finances and operations of a public school are no simple matter, and Judge Cohen will digest a host of evidence and testimony before issuing his final order.

Along with the issue of Title I funding, the judge will have to consider whether Lincoln served unregulated food over the summer, whether its governing board ignored sanctions against the principal, and whether the school failed to conduct proper background checks on its employees.

The district argued that Lincoln posed a danger to the “health, safety or welfare” of students in its termination notice. However, an appeal might succeed if the judge finds that Manatee failed to notice or justify the termination.

While the judge has plenty to consider, he grew frustrated with gaps in Lincoln’s evidence. Forgotten passwords, faulty electronics and missing documents were discovered before the hearings, and some evidence was was still missing after the four-day hearing.

The school district’s attorney, Erin Jackson, also pointed to the deposition of Hundley and Cornelle Maxfield, the school’s former chief information officer. In total, they invoked the Fifth Amendment nearly 180 times, citing an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General.

If the appeal does succeed, the former governing board —Christine Dawson, James Ward and Christopher Czaia— may return to their posts at Lincoln. While their fate remains in limbo, it’s clear the process took a toll on their former leader.

During his testimony on Wednesday evening, Hundley described his exit from the school. Staff packed up his office, loaded the boxes into his truck and then wished him well.

Hundley said he made it less than a mile down the road before a police officer pulled him over, as two Lincoln students walked on the nearby sidewalk. According to Wednesday’s testimony, the officer said district administrators were trying to serve Hundley a trespass notice, and the sight of police shocked Hundley’s students.

“They see the police pulling me over and they start crying,” Hundley said on Wednesday, fighting back tears of his own.

Throughout this week’s hearings, without fail, a group of Lincoln supporters gathered in the courtroom. The same people were active in recent protests and chaotic school board meetings, each following Lincoln’s charter termination.

With no foreseeable end to the disagreements and unrest, the only consensus will come from Judge Cohen. He has until Sept. 30 to issue a final order.

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