Judge makes ruling in charter termination case between Lincoln and Manatee schools

An administrative law judge ruled in favor of the School District of Manatee County on Friday in its decision to terminate Lincoln Memorial Academy’s charter.

The 95-page determination came about a month after a four-day hearing in which the school district argued that mismanagement and defiance are what led it to end the charter agreement with the Palmetto school.

Over the course of the hearing, district lawyers were able to prove that the district acted in “good cause” to protect students from “immediate and serious danger to ... health, safety and/or welfare,” wrote Robert Cohen, the chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings.

Cohen denied Lincoln’s appeal to keep the charter school contract and upheld the termination.

“The decision by the Department of Administrative Hearings reflects the facts presented in the case and such decision is consistent with the statue that governs all charter schools,” district general counsel Mitchell Teitelbaum said in a statement on Friday.

Lincoln’s failure to comply with nutritional and record-keeping requirements; its inability to pay invoices for food services; its failure to have running water; its failure to background screen; and LMA’s former principal and CEO Eddie Hundley’s presence on campus were all listed among immediate and serious danger to students.

An administrative law judge ruled that the School District of Manatee County acted in “good cause” when it terminated Lincoln Memorial Academy’s charter agreement. Tiffany Tompkins

Cohen noted LMA should have been able to pay its employees, its insurance and Florida Retirement System contributions, as well as for the students’ food deliveries and the water utility bill.

“Perhaps the most inexplicable failure to pay issue in this case involved LMA’s water utility bill,” Cohen wrote, noting July 22, 2019, was not the first time the school received a water shut-off notice.

The school also decided to enter into an agreement that would require it to pay Total Life Prep approximately $1.4 million over five years for curriculum materials. But the document stating this agreement was not produced during the hearing and no explanation was given by LMA about why additional funding was sought.

“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/or welfare of LMA students for self-gain. Further, it appears that this agreement was entered into in an attempt to circumvent section 1012.795, by paying Mr. Hundley as TLP rather than as CEO of LMA,” Cohen wrote.

With limited testimony at the hearing, Cohen wrote LMA did not dispute it had a debt of at least $1.5 million and the leaders, when they invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, did not deny knowing of the shortfall in funds.

Cohen said the school’s failure to comply with nutritional and record-keeping requirements and inability to pay invoices for food services was in fact a danger to student health, welfare and/or safety. One example provided was LMA did not produce records that it screened student meals for allergens.

According to Cohen, Lincoln’s representatives failed to provide any meaningful defense against the school district’s accusations. In one section of the judge’s explanation, he points out that Lincoln officials pleaded the Fifth Amendment “hundreds of times” in their depositions — a decision that left them with “an impaired case.”

“It has been made clear that the intention of the School Board of Manatee County is that Lincoln Memorial Academy remain a charter school in such a way that guarantee its success academically, financially and in terms of community governance and support. As such, the School Board will continue to pursue all options to turn that intention into a reality,” Teitelbaum said.

As part of the charter takeover in August, the school district hired Ronnie King as interim principal of the school, replacing Hundley. He had previously served as principal of the school from 2012-14, during which time he oversaw the school’s grade rise from an F to a C.

Hundley first came under fire in 2017 when he recommended Quentin Peterson, a former Lincoln employee accused of inappropriate sexual contact with a student, for a teaching position in Sarasota County. That scandal resulted in the Florida Department of Education revoking Hundley’s educator certificate for five years.

The case earned the attention of Florida’s top education official, who wrote a scathing letter to the district demanding that it take action.

“I urge you, as superintendent and school board members, to address the serious issue of Lincoln memorial Academy aggressively and with all due haste,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote in a July 16 letter.

“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 added.

Lincoln’s supporters have decried the allegations against the school’s leadership as scapegoating by the school board, which led to protests and tense board meetings.

The school board’s next meeting is Oct. 8 at the School Support Center, 215 Manatee Ave. W. in Bradenton.

Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.
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