1 missed email led to threat of school closure, Thunderbird official says

The North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board voted Tuesday to ask the state to revoke Thunderbird Preparatory Academy’s charter.
The North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board voted Tuesday to ask the state to revoke Thunderbird Preparatory Academy’s charter.

Peter Mojica’s description of Tuesday afternoon sounds like a classic nightmare: He was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room in Huntersville with his 7-year-old son when he got two calls in quick succession, telling him he was supposed to be at an important meeting in Raleigh that very minute.

He knew nothing about it, he says. But the survival of the charter school he had founded two years ago was at stake.

After 34 minutes on the phone with the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board, he listened to that panel unanimously vote to ask that the state close Thunderbird Preparatory Academy in Cornelius.

The email notifying Thunderbird representatives that they were expected to appear in Raleigh Tuesday apparently went only to the school’s newly hired principal, who discovered it too late, after state officials pulled him out of a training session in Raleigh. No board members got copies, said Mojica, a tech entrepreneur who chairs the board.

“I don’t want everybody thinking we’re a bunch of numbskulls who willfully didn’t attend the meeting,” Mojica said Wednesday, as he scrambled to reassure families that the board will fight to keep the school open.

On June 3, the state Office of Charter Schools emailed a letter to Thunderbird Principal Emmanuel Vincent telling him the advisory board would review the school’s compliance status on June 14 and inviting him to send any material for review by June 9. The notice said questions would cover finances, academics and governance.

At Tuesday’s meeting, state officials itemized concerns that included $450,000 in debt coming due this month, repeated complaints from parents, turnover in faculty and leadership and “potential health and safety issues related to black mold and rodent droppings.”

In a letter to parents posted Tuesday night, Mojica acknowledged “legitimate concerns raised regarding health and safety concerns due to the flooding,” and said the school is working with the state health department to address them. He said the board is prepared to answer questions about the financial audit, and will review its leadership and management structure.

Mojica said in an interview Wednesday that most families are happy with Thunderbird, but there have been numerous complaints from a small group of parents who “believe it’s their private school” and disagreed with him over hiring Vincent as principal in April. Those parents wanted another candidate named to the job, he said.

Thunderbird was one of three charter schools summoned to Tuesday’s advisory board meeting to answer questions. It’s impossible to know if the board would have been satisfied with Mojica’s explanations if he had attended, but the lack of response from Thunderbird clearly angered many board members, who asked if the board was serious about running a school.

They took a break to try to find someone from Thunderbird and located Emmanuel in a new administrator training session in another part of the building. He said he knew nothing about a summons to the advisory board’s meeting, and found the email only later, when he searched to see if he had missed something. Both Emmanuel and a staffer from the state Office of Charter Schools called Mojica on his cellphone, where he was patched into the meeting before the vote to recommend revocation.

Mojica said he offered to come to a follow-up meeting at any time, even driving up that night if the advisory board could wait. But advisory board members, who come from around the state, had already voiced distaste for coming back to Raleigh to meet with a board that failed to appear.

The state Board of Education, which makes the final decision on revoking charters, is expected to receive the advisory board’s recommendation in July and vote in August. If the board votes to revoke the charter, Thunderbird can appeal, state charter officials said.

Thunderbird opened in 2014. It 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.

Mojica said he’ll request a meeting with the Office of Charter Schools and will invite state officials to visit Thunderbird. The board plans to “move forward with business as usual in anticipation for a successful 2016-17 school year,” the letter to parents says.

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

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