Cornelius charter school gets a second chance on a short leash

Thunderbird charter tries for a fresh start

A tour of Thunderbird Prep charter school from last summer. A year after narrowly averting a forced closing, the charter school has turned to a consultant who is under ethics investigation in South Carolina for help charting a fresh start.
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A tour of Thunderbird Prep charter school from last summer. A year after narrowly averting a forced closing, the charter school has turned to a consultant who is under ethics investigation in South Carolina for help charting a fresh start.

After probing topics ranging from rodent infestation to high-interest loans, a state charter panel Thursday backed away from a call to close Thunderbird Preparatory Academy in Cornelius.

But the Charter School Advisory Board voted unanimously to demand intense scrutiny in the coming year.

“I think you have a very short period of time to right this ship,” board Chairman Alex Quigley told school leaders.

The advisory board called Thursday’s special meeting after voting June 14 to recommend closing the school when Thunderbird leaders missed a regular meeting where they had been summoned to discuss financial, academic and health/safety concerns.

Thunderbird board Chair Peter Mojica said Thursday that bad publicity has damaged recruitment for the coming year, with enrollment dropping from 500 at the start of last year to 432 enrolled for 2016-17. The school has also lost 11 of the 23 teachers it had last year.

But Mojica said the board and the school’s recently hired principal are committed to fixing problems and reviving the school.

“We have a great school that is not absent of its problems,” he said. “We are well aware of them and are trying to address them.”

Thunderbird, which opened in 2014, has struggled to find and pay for a building, establish leadership and show academic gains – challenges that face many new charter schools. The problems have been compounded by spring flooding and a bitter rift dividing board members, faculty and families.

State charter school staff say they’ve gotten far more complaints from Thunderbird parents and faculty than they’ve seen at other charter schools.

Much of that tension stems from the April hiring of Emmanuel Vincent, the school’s third principal/managing director in as many years. Some families who wanted Thunderbird to keep interim Principal Andrea McKinney, a longtime local educator, are now working for the removal of Vincent and Mojica, even if that requires revoking the charter and forcing the school to close.

Adam Boatsman, an accountant whose son attended Thunderbird, says Vincent and the current board have lost the confidence of parents and faculty.

“They have a very high likelihood of running out of money,” Boatsman said in a recent interview. He said his son will return to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in August.

Mojica says Boatsman and a small number of parents have overstated problems that the school is trying to fix. For instance, he said, heavy spring rains did flood some classrooms and mice were found in one closet where snacks were stored in an open container. But he provided a parent’s May complaint to the Mecklenburg Health Department citing “mold and water damage throughout the building” and “multiple dead rats and rat droppings on all the desks” as an example of exaggeration.

“We are guilty until proven innocent,” he said. “Something is wrong with that picture.”

Advisory board members said they’ve also heard from parents who support the current leadership.

“It was a fabulous experience. We’ve had no issues,” Laura Manley, whose son was at Thunderbird last year and whose daughter will start there in August, said in an interview.

Alexis Schauss, director of school business for the Department of Public Instruction, outlined three $150,000 short-term loans Thunderbird took out to cover the penalty for breaking a contract with a management company during its first year. One carried no interest, one was 9.5 percent and one required interest-only payments of $4,167 a month, or $50,000 a year. “That is obviously a high cost of money,” Schauss said.

The advisory board’s conditions for letting Thunderbird keep its charter include reporting back in September and February, filing a strategic plan for better parent communication within 60 days, meeting the 2015-16 audit deadline in October and providing loan documents to the state. The board also asked the state’s charter school staff to make at least two unannounced visits to Thunderbird in 2016-17.

Those motions will go to the state Board of Education for approval. Thunderbird gets more than $3 million a year in public money, which would stop if the state revoked the charter.

“This is deadly serious,” said advisory board member Anthony Helton. “You’ve got 432 students and 600, 700, 800 families counting on you. The citizens of North Carolina are counting on you.”

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