Debt, mold and complaints: NC panel wants Thunderbird Prep's charter revoked

Thunderbird Preparatory Academy in Cornelius will lose its public funding if the N.C. Board of Education endorses a recommendation to revoke its charter.
Thunderbird Preparatory Academy in Cornelius will lose its public funding if the N.C. Board of Education endorses a recommendation to revoke its charter.

A state advisory board voted unanimously to recommend closing Thunderbird Preparatory Academy after staff reported on a litany of problems at the 2-year-old Cornelius charter school.

No one from Thunderbird appeared at Tuesday’s meeting of the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board to answer questions about heavy debt, faculty turnover, parent complaints and “potential health and safety issues related to black mold and rodent droppings.”

That infuriated advisory board members, who are fellow charter school operators.

“Are they serious about actually running a school? This is ridiculous,” one board member said.

“There’s obviously some serious financial issues,” a board member said later. “They’ve apparently got rats going to the bathroom all over the place. Do they even care?”

Because the Observer was following the Raleigh meeting on audiostreaming, it was not possible to tell which members were talking.

Staff from the state Office of Charter Schools said Thunderbird has had problems with financial reporting and parent complaints since it opened in 2014. It earned a C from the state based on student test scores in 2015, with an overall proficiency rate of 65 percent, and failed to meet state targets for student growth. Results for 2016 have not been released.

“We get constant complaints about this school,” Deanna Townsend-Smith, lead education consultant with the charter school office, told the advisory board.

The N.C. Board of Education will decide whether to act on the advisory board’s recommendation to revoke the charter for Thunderbird. If it does so, the school would no longer be eligible for public money.

Thunderbird, which had about 500 kindergarten through fifth-grade students in the year that just ended, received more than $2.5 million in state money for 2015-16. It received almost $914,000 from Mecklenburg County in 2014-15, the most recent year available in state reports, said Alexis Schauss of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The advisory board took a break Tuesday afternoon to try to track down Thunderbird representatives. They found Principal Emmanuel Vincent, who was hired in April, at a training session for new administrators in another part of the building. He told them he didn’t know about the advisory board’s summons and had little information about the school’s history, Schauss said.

Board Chair Peter Mojica, reached by phone, also said he had not received notice that his board was expected to answer questions from the advisory board, Schauss said.

An Observer email to Mojica and other board members Tuesday afternoon seeking comment on the meeting got no immediate response.

According to the Thunderbird website, Mojica is CEO of a software company and codirector for the Charlotte Founder Institute, a training program for entrepreneurs.

Since the state lifted its charter school cap in 2011, Charlotte has seen rapid growth in new and existing charter schools, as well as a handful of failures. Three new schools closed within a year of opening, and two long-time schools lost their charter this year. One of them, Crossroads Charter, is in the midst of a court fight to reverse that decision.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms