Florida education commissioner explains scathing letter to Lincoln charter school

Florida’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, issued a warning to Lincoln Memorial Academy and the Manatee County School District in July, a catalyst for the district takeover of the charter school.

“I urge you, as superintendent and school board members, to address the serious issues of Lincoln Memorial Academy aggressively and with all due haste,” he said on July 16, referencing the school’s troubled finances and leadership.

Corcoran shared the reasons for his letter on Wednesday afternoon, after an event hosted by the Argus Foundation. He appeared for the organization’s final “Meet the Minds” event of 2019.

In an interview after the event, Corcoran said he first learned of the financial issues at Lincoln, a school in Palmetto, after hearing from Jonathan Satter, secretary for the Florida Department of Management Services.

Satter’s department oversees business and workforce matters in Florida, and it supports the state retirement system. The agency continually asked Lincoln for its delinquent retirement fund payments between March and July.

According to the education commissioner, Satter received notice that Lincoln owed money to the IRS, though Corcoran was unsure of the amount on Wednesday. The commissioner said he directed staff at the Florida Department of Education to investigate further.

“At that point, I wanted research on every aspect of the school,” Corcoran said.

In an amended termination notice, the school district confirmed that Lincoln owed money to the IRS. However, the secretary called Corcoran about money owed to FRS (Florida Retirement System), according to a follow-up interview with David Frady, spokesperson for the Department of Management Services.

The education commissioner sent a handful of letters and emails to Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, school board Chairman Dave Miner and the school’s governing board on July 16.

Corcoran urged them to completely remove Eddie Hundley, the school’s principal and founder.

“It is unacceptable that Mr. Hundley continues to be employed as an educator and I wholeheartedly support action by the district to rectify this situation by making every effort to have Mr. Hundley relieved of all responsibilities with Lincoln Memorial Academy,” he wrote.

Corcoran’s letter underscored sanctions against Hundley. An administrative law judge found that he twice endorsed a former employee who was under criminal investigation, helping him secure a teaching job in Sarasota County.

The judge recommended Hundley’s educator certificate be revoked for five years, a sanction upheld by the Education Practices Commission in May. In his letter, Corcoran said Hundley’s case was “reviewed by two independent authorities,” both “immune from influence by the Department of Education.”

“For the governing board to continue to allocate funds for his services is, on its face, contrary to the best interest of the students,” Corcoran wrote. “This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the school is facing a financial emergency.”

The school struggled with a financial deficit for several months, and both Lincoln and the school district were required by state law to work on a solution. If no agreement was reached, the commissioner had authority to intervene and require his own corrective action plan.

Corcoran said he would intervene if no agreement was reached after one week, but he never had the chance. The school board voted 4-1 to terminate Lincoln’s charter and take control of its operations on July 23.

District leaders said the school was beyond repair under the current administration, but Lincoln supporters felt they were suffocated by the district, sparking community protests and chaotic school board meetings.

School leaders pointed the finger at Manatee, saying it slowed or halted the federal money owed to Lincoln, causing its financial woes.

Lincoln supporters felt that Hundley, the school’s former principal and founder, was a scapegoat for shortfalls in Manatee and Sarasota counties, which allowed someone to become a teacher while under criminal investigation.

With no foreseeable end to the controversy, leaders from the school district and the charter school gathered for a multi-day hearing last month, arguing for and against Lincoln’s charter termination.

Robert Cohen, director and chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings, will issue a final order by Sept. 30