Lincoln charter school will appeal takeover by Manatee school district

Lincoln Memorial Academy will continue its fight against a takeover by the school district and now the order of an administrative law judge.

The School Board of Manatee County voted 4-1 to terminate Lincoln’s charter in July, citing issues with its finances and leadership. Robert Cohen, serving as chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings, ruled in favor of the school board last month.

Two crucial events — the school board’s July 23 action and the judge’s final order on Sept. 27 — will now be contested in the state’s First District Court of Appeals.

The school’s former leaders are represented by Annabel Majewski and Roy Wasson. Their Miami-based law firm, Wasson and Associates, offered a hopeful message on the company website: “Where a final order is just the beginning.”

Judge Cohen’s final order was blunt. The school board’s decision was not only legal, it was inevitable, according to his 95-page ruling.

“LMA refused every request to respond to these issues leading, ultimately, to the school district, after a vote by the school board, to proceed with the most drastic measure (and the only one remaining) imaginable, issuing a Notice of Immediate Termination of LMA’s charter,” he wrote.

His order evoked strong disagreement from Christopher Norwood, a consultant with the Governance Institute for School Accountability. He represented the charter school during a recent four-day hearing in front of Judge Cohen, and Norwood is continuing his role as spokesman for the legal team.

The attorneys filed a two-page “Notice of Appeal” on Oct. 24, announcing that Lincoln intends to fight the judge’s decision, but their specific arguments are still forthcoming. Norwood offered a preview of the likely arguments during an interview with the Bradenton Herald on Wednesday.

“From a legal perspective, I think he made several errors, and that’s why we have appeal courts,” he said.

At the heart of the issue is Florida Statute 1002.33, which allows for a charter termination after 90 days’ notice, unless the school poses an immediate danger to the health, safety or welfare of its students. In that case, a charter can be immediately terminated on certain grounds.

Manatee offered a host of reasons for the termination. District officials pointed to the continued presence of Eddie Hundley, the school’s founder and its former principal, despite a state order revoking his educator certificate.

The district also cited debts owed to the IRS and the Florida Retirement System, along with missed payments to food vendors and utility companies. Hundreds of pages of records were used to justify the immediate termination and to prove that a danger existed.

But the appeal, Norwood said, is less about the specific reasons for Lincoln’s charter termination and more about the process itself.

The school board met for its afternoon workshop on July 23, when they received documents and a presentation from several district officials: Mitchell Teitelbaum, the district attorney; Tammy Taylor, the director of finance; and Heather Jenkins, the chief financial officer.

After the presentation, school board Chairman Dave Miner gauged support for a new item on the evening agenda, and a potential motion to terminate the charter and take control of Lincoln’s campus. Further discussion was added to the agenda for their regular meeting, following the workshop.

In the interview on Wednesday morning, Norwood said he agreed with the judge on one point: the last-minute agenda update was legal, despite the vocal concerns of audience members and school board member Charlie Kennedy.

“I think that was questionable — I don’t think it’s illegal,” Norwood said. “I think it’s immoral to do that to the people and the parents of Lincoln Memorial, but that’s their choice. They’re elected officials. They get voted in and voted out.”

He said the board violated state law in the actions that followed, pointing to a requirement that charter school sponsors — in this case the school board — “set forth in writing the particular facts and circumstances” behind an immediate termination.

While board members received the documents and presentation in their afternoon workshop, the information was not incorporated in their final motion and vote at the evening meeting, which means they failed to “set forth in writing” their justifications, Norwood said.

“The sponsor shall notify in writing the charter school’s governing board, the charter school principal, and the department if a charter is terminated immediately,” the law continues.

In most cases, Norwood said, a school board will advertise its intentions a week before the crucial decision. He said a notice of termination is often prepared before the meeting, giving board members a chance to review and approve the document.

But in Manatee, a notice of termination was finished by the school district’s attorney in the early-morning hours of July 24, the day after, and then it was signed by the school board’s chairman.

“Is it a technicality? Perhaps it is, but it’s a very important one,” Norwood said.

He also took issue with the fact that the Manatee School District filed an amended notice of termination, using evidence that was discovered after the takeover. The amended notice was permitted by Judge Cohen during the recent hearing.

Norwood believes the judge’s ruling created a dangerous precedent for school districts throughout Florida. The appeal, he said, was about more than Lincoln Memorial Academy.

“A school board can meet one day, pop something on the agenda, vote to terminate a charter school and never say why,” he concluded.

The judge offered a different interpretation of state law in his final order. In the case of an immediate termination, he said it was proper to issue the written notice and the related issues “after the fact.”

He also said the school board “carried its burden of establishing, by clear and convincing evidence, facts and circumstances that indicated an immediate and serious danger” to students.

“Therefore, the school board did not violate due process requirements, as it provided LMA with the required notice of identifying the specific issues that resulted in the immediate termination as a charter school,” the judge wrote.

Teitelbaum, the school district’s attorney, said the district was awaiting the official basis for Lincoln’s appeal. In the prepared statement, he also pointed to a recent decision by Judge Cohen, who granted a district request for attorneys’ fees and costs.

“We remain confident of further and continued success on the next appeal in the DCA,” Teitelbaum wrote. “The school board in the interim will seek to recover from LMA Inc. all costs and associated attorney fees already expended and to be expended in this matter as per the most recent judicial ruling.”

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.