Judge finds Lincoln Memorial Academy’s charter was properly terminated

Published: Sep. 27, 2019 at 2:47 PM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - After four days of hearings and weeks of waiting, a judge has decided that the Manatee County School District acted properly when it terminated the charter for Lincoln Memorial Academy (LMA) and took the school over.

The school district took over LMA in July, citing concerns of serious danger to the health, safety and/or welfare of the students because Eddie Hundley, the school’s principal and founder, remained CEO despite the revocation of his educator’s certificate for five years in Florida and a requirement that he not be employed in a position where he has direct contact with students, as well as alleged fiscal and administrative mismanagement by LMA staff.

Those allegations include:

  • LMA received a water shut off notice on July 22 due to inability to pay the bill
  • Failed to make required contributions to the Florida Retirement System despite withholding the funds from employees’ paychecks
  • Failed to pay teachers that earned the Best and Brightest Awards from the state
  • Failed to properly pay employees
  • Failed to pay the IRS despite taxes withheld from employees’ paychecks
  • An inability of the school to meet its financial obligation
  • The termination of contracts with food and dairy providers due to unpaid invoices
  • Failure to properly screen food for allergens before serving it to students
  • Failure to maintain required records for the National Food Service Program, placing the school at risk of losing its funding to provide food to students
  • Failing to maintain insurance for student athletes

Hundley and the leaders of LMA requested a hearing with an administrative judge. The hearings took place between August 26-29 and shed new lights on the troubles surrounding LMA.

Ultimately, the judge determined that the district acted appropriately in terminating LMA’s charter, writing, “The extensive amount of evidence and testimony at hearing in this matter support no other conclusion than the School Board met its burden by clear and convincing evidence and that LMA’s charter contract was appropriate immediately terminated due to a serious and immediate danger to the health, safety and/or welfare of LMA’s students.”

During the 1st day of hearings, we heard from Attorney Erin Jackson, who was hired by the district to argue their case. She made bold claims against the school.

“After the school district terminated the charter, the school district learned about more problems," says Jackson. “LMA not only failed background checks on board members but failed to complete the required background check process for approximately 13 of its employees. One of the individuals that was employed was on campus all year long and had a recently felony conviction for grand theft auto and had been arrested for violation of probation only a few days of being employed with LMA."

It was known before the hearing that LMA had issues paying bills, including being unable to pay a water bill just 10 days after receiving $280,000 from the school district. It’s also unclear where money went that was supposed to go to teacher pay, pensions, and teacher and student athlete insurance. The school was around $700,000 in debt.

Jackson says the school was also unable to pay their food vendor. “LMA’s cafeteria manager had to purchase supplies at Aldi, Publix, Sams Club.”

It was also known that the principal, Eddie Hundley, who was at the Administrative Hearing, had his education certificate revoked for five years for referring a teacher for a teaching job while the teacher was under investigation for sexual misconduct with a student. He was fired by the district.

But more allegations came throughout the hearing, including the school’s governing board doubling the salary for Hundley and the school’s Chief Financial Officer Cornell Maxfield. Hundley was paid more than $204,000 for the year. which also included monthly stipends. Maxfield took home more than $100,000 for her yearly salary, which also included monthly stipends.

Jackson said during the hearing that Maxfield deleted financial documentation and DeAnna King, who was also living with Hundley, was hired by Hundley as a consultant responsible for the school’s payroll.

During Day 2 of the hearings, we heard from Manatee County School District Food Service Director Regina Thoma, who said, “There was some raw product. One of the obvious things was there was no dates on the products. So everything has to be dated. There was some raw products that was stored that was not covered. Things like that could cause cross contamination."

Thoma alleges just days after Manatee County School District takeover of LMA she went to the school and discovered not only issues with storage of the food but also the cafeteria not complying with the right child nutrition standards.

“The receipts for products purchased through U.S. Foods did not have child nutrition labels," says Thoma.

Many photos from the school’s cafeteria were viewed as evidence but was then thrown out once it came to light the pictures were taken four days after the school was no longer under Hundley’s leadership.

Thoma testified saying the food did not meet child nutrition standards because the school’s food vendor, U.S. Foods, stopped providing meals because of the lack of payment, leaving the school’s cafeteria manager to go to local grocery stores like Aldi, Winn Dixie, Sam’s Club and Publix to buy food.

The school was a participant of the National School Lunch Program, which means students at LMA were eligible for free or reduced lunch with certain incomes. The program reimbursed the school as long as an authorized food vendor was being used, but Thoma and evidence in the forensic audit against the school mentioned the school did not qualify and still applied for reimbursement each month since about May.

Judge Robert Cohen was also very vocal about missing documents and records to back up testimonies presented in court.

“All the focus here has been on what about when you send a notice of compliance and you haven’t been given 30 days. There were lots of times to respond to the number of requests for records and those records were never produced. I just can’t believe a school that I know is full of computers and record keeping and has a CEO and CFO and HR person that there’s not records. There has to be records and if there are no records the inference I make is that the records have been destroyed or hidden," says Judge Cohen.

On the 3rd day of hearings, the school’s payroll vendor, DeAnna King, took the stand. ABC7 has learned that King, who was responsible for paying employees, contracts and conducting backgrounds checks, has a personal relationship with Hundley, the school’s founder and former principal.

Jackson said some documents had been sent by King to the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education, but other documents, such as employee pay stubs, were nowhere to be found.

King said those documents were on a thumb drive that crashed on July 25th. Jackson noted that was the same day auditors were supposed to visit the school.

Hundley also took the stand, arguing that he wasn’t given enough time before the school district took over. “I believe Manatee School District failed to afford us 30 days that the contract would afford us and that would be a breech of contract."

During his testimony, Hundley argued that LMA was treated unfairly because the district, in his opinion, did not want the school to become a charter school, comparing the district’s actions involving LMA to Rowlett, another charter school in the Manatee County School District that was formerly a public school.

Hundley also stated he felt that the district did not properly fund LMA or give them their funding in a timely manner. King said funds provided by the school district could not be picked up and would be delivered by standard shipping through the mail.

Though it was only supposed to last three days, the hearings stretched into a fourth.

On Day 4 of the hearings, the school district’s director for programs and grants, Elena Garcia, testified, saying the district made an error in their prediction of Title I funding needed for the conversion to a charter school.

The school thought it was entitled to $280,000 but only received $150,000.

“Which is a $133,000 difference than the original projection which was developed, by the way, by the number of applications that Lincoln had on file including 6th, 7th and 8th graders," says Garcia.

Former LMA leaders say that’s what caused them to go down a financial spiral.

The judge closed out the hearing still concerned over missing financial records.

“The crashing of thumbs drives, there’s a lot of things that happened to make these documents not available and I have to believe the CFO of an organization, especially a school that has a lot of accountability and a lot of reporting requirements, would have kept a secure copy of the records some place,” said Judge Cohen.

Below is the complete ruling from Judge Cohen:

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