Judge nears decision in Lincoln charter school case. New information has surfaced

Less than two weeks remain before an administrative law judge rules on the Manatee school district’s takeover of Lincoln Memorial Academy, and though a four-day hearing ended last month, new information continues to surface.

Both parties submitted their final arguments and preferred outcomes on Wednesday evening. Erin Jackson, a Tampa-based attorney, is representing the School District of Manatee County; while Christopher Norwood, a consultant with the Governance Institute for School Accountability, is representing Lincoln.

Robert Cohen, chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings, will decide whether issues at Lincoln posed an immediate danger to the health, safety or welfare of students, giving the school board a reason to immediately terminate Lincoln’s charter. Judge Cohen will reach a decision by Sept. 30, either upholding or overturning the termination.

The school’s documents, or lack thereof, became a central issue during the hearings, which took place at the Manatee County Judicial Center from Aug. 26-29.

Norwood argued that most of Lincoln’s documents were seized during the school district’s takeover.

“The School Board of Manatee County has every pencil, pen, notepad, computer, and everything else in between,” he wrote in Wednesday’s filing. “Whatever boxes are there, the school district has.”

But according to Jackson’s final argument, the district is still learning of documents outside of its control, which should have been provided by school officials during the appeal process, in compliance with document requests.

She said a “community member” provided the district with a five-year contract worth more than $1.4 million, awarded to Lincoln’s former principal and its chief executive officer, Eddie Hundley. The agreement was for Hundley’s curriculum, Total Life Prep, and it was entered with his company, Total Life Prep LLC.

Christine Dawson, chair of the school’s governing board, signed the contract on July 1, about three weeks before the district takeover. Jackson said the contract was discovered after last month’s appeal hearings.

“Though LMA could not pay its employees’ payroll, its employees’ insurance, or its employees’ FRS benefits and could not pay for its students’ food deliveries or water, LMA decided to enter into an agreement that would require it to pay TLP (and/or Mr. Hundley) approximately $1,425,000 over a five-year period,” Jackson wrote.

“This contract is indicative of a pattern of behavior by LMA leaders, who continuously made decisions that presented a serious and immediate danger to the health, safety and welfare of LMA students for self-gain,” she continued.

Another central issue in the takeover was Hundley’s continued presence on Lincoln’s campus, despite sanctions that prevented him from being “employed by district school board or public school in any capacity requiring direct contact with students,” according to an order from the state.

An administrative law judge recommended the sanctions after finding that Hundley twice recommended a former employee for a teaching job in Sarasota County, despite an ongoing criminal investigation against him. The Education Practices Commission then agreed with the judge.

During the appeal hearings, Norwood argued that “direct contact” meant unsupervised access to students, and that Hundley could remain the CEO while under the sanctions, working among other school staff.

In a letter dated June 25, the head of Lincoln’s governing board responded to an official with the state DOE, who was concerned about Hundley’s continued presence on campus.

“At our last board meeting it was determined that Mr. Hundley will no longer serve as principal, but will continue to serve as CEO/Founder of Lincoln Memorial Academy,” Dawson wrote.

In his resignation letter on July 22, one day before the takeover, Hundley said he would step down as principal. However, he would “continue to provide the needed guidance and direction to the school leadership.”

But on the day of Lincoln’s takeover, Hundley actually stepped down from all leadership roles at Lincoln, addressing one of the school district’s main concerns, according to Wednesday’s filing.

“At the time of the July 23 school board meeting, Eddie Hundley was not the principal or CEO of the school,” Norwood wrote.

Lincoln’s argument: A violation of due process

According to Norwood’s 30-page argument, the school district violated Lincoln’s due process rights and the rights of all parents, teachers and community members who invested in the school’s future.

The community — 93 percent of parents and 97 percent of staff — voted in favor of the charter conversion, according to Norwood. The conversion gave residents a sense of ownership and pride in the school, and their hopes were dashed on July 23.

“The adverse effects of this rash decision by the district has caused damage to the school and community it serves beyond measure,” he wrote.

According to Norwood, the district failed to prove that Lincoln posed a threat to the health, safety or welfare of students. He said the school district also failed to accurately predict the amount of federal money owed to Lincoln, and that money was withheld until December, months after school started.

Lincoln received $133,000 less than expected after Title I funds began to arrive, or $265,000 by Norwood’s calculation, forcing Lincoln to drain its reserves and spiral into debt, he argued.

The result — unpaid bills to local and state agencies — would still fall short of a threat to students, Norwood continued.

“The mere existence of an unpaid bill does not rise to the threshold of jeopardizing the health, safety and welfare of children,” he continued.

He said the district had a responsibility to monitor Lincoln’s progress, and that Manatee only became involved in the months leading up to Lincoln’s charter termination, sending a barrage of non-compliance notices to the school.

And just as the state’s education commissioner was about to step in and dictate a solution to Lincoln, the school district took over, ousting the school’s leaders before they could recover in the upcoming year, Norwood wrote.

The board terminated Lincoln’s charter after adding a last-minute item to its agenda on July 23, he said, arguing that controversial actions should be noticed far in advance, giving residents enough time to gather and voice their opinions.

Norwood also took issue with the amended notice of termination that was filed in early August, after the district took over Lincoln and discovered new concerns. The potential issues should have been discovered and noticed long before the termination, giving Lincoln a chance to address them, he said.

“The School District of Manatee County is treating the law governing charter schools as if it doesn’t exist,” Norwood concluded.

Robert Cohen, an administrative law judge with the Division of Administrative Hearings, addresses Christopher Norwood, a representative for Lincoln Memorial Academy, on Aug. 26, 2019. Giuseppe Sabella

Manatee’s argument: A grave threat to students’ well-being

According to Jackson’s 73-page argument, Lincoln was unable to meet its basic financial obligations — a key component of operating the school and providing for students.

When it comes to federal grants, a difference between the estimate and the final amount — about $133,000 — was not enough to cause Lincoln’s downfall, Jackson said. The school relied too heavily on federal dollars, which are meant to enhance a school’s programs, not to make or break the school itself, she continued.

Lincoln received more than $4 million between federal, state and local funding, she wrote, listing the money still owed to government agencies.

As of late August, the school had $1.5 million in liabilities. Despite withholding money from employees’ salaries, Lincoln still owed nearly $82,000 to the Florida Retirement System, $374,000 to the IRS and $76,000 to Humana, the staff’s health insurance provider, Jackson said.

As a solution to its troubled finances, the school actually drained its accounts by agreeing to several loans and promissory notes, according to Jackson’s argument.

“For example, bank statements show there was a daily debit of $1,479 by CFG Merchant Solutions, a daily debit of $725 by ROC Funding Group, and a daily debit of $1,499 by Pearl Capital,” she wrote.

“That equates to $18,515 each Monday through Friday workweek,” she continued.

As a result of its finances, the school lost contracts with its approved food and dairy vendors, despite receiving reimbursements from the National School Lunch Program. More than $10,000 was spent at local grocery stores, Jackson said, noting that Publix and Aldi aren’t government-approved vendors, and that neither guarantee the proper nutritional standards.

Schools document their reimbursable lunches in “production records,” which are checked by the Florida Department of Agriculture every three years. According to Jackson, the district could only find one week of records after its takeover, and Lincoln still owes U.S. Foods Inc. nearly $19,000.

Attorney Erin Jackson, representing the Manatee school district, listens to testimony during a hearing to appeal the Lincoln Memorial Academy’s termination of their charter at the Manatee County Judicial Center Wednesday. Tiffany Tompkins

The school also received two water shut-off notices from the city of Palmetto, but at least one outstanding bill was paid, and the second wasn’t due until after Lincoln’s termination.

“LMA’s financial mismanagement and the danger this mismanagement posed to student health, safety and welfare rendered it unable to adequately provide the most basic services for its students — including food and water,” Jackson wrote.

She went on to cite Lincoln for its lapse in insurance coverage for student athletes, and a lack of proper background checks for the employees. While school leaders argued that all employees were screened by DeAnna King, the HR contractor, Jackson pointed to a revelation that followed the district’s takeover.

She said John Walker, a “security official” at Lincoln, would never be hired by the district, yet he worked at Lincoln during the previous school year.

“Once properly screened by the school district, Mr. Walker’s background results revealed that he was arrested for felony grand theft in the third degree in February 2016 and was re-arrested for violating his probation for grand theft on July 10, 2018 — less than two weeks before LMA hired him,” she wrote.

Jackson said the issues at Lincoln were staggering. And before the board cast its vote on July 23, more than 20 people spoke in support of Lincoln during the public comment period, she said, rebutting the due process claims.

Much of the new concerns arose from an audit by Carr, Riggs and Ingram, the district’s internal auditor. But much has yet to be discovered, Jackson said, pointing to questionable record-keeping and an ongoing federal investigation.

Hundley and Maxfield, the school’s top administrators, invoked the Fifth Amendment a total of 177 times during depositions, citing an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General.

“Even now, the school board still does not know the true extent of LMA’s debt since LMA still has not produced the required financial records despite numerous requests and a court order,” she concluded.

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