Fired StudentFirst administrators’ suit moves ahead

Two fired administrators can proceed with their breach of contract lawsuit against StudentFirst Academy, but members of the charter school board are released from liability, a Mecklenburg County judge ruled Friday.

Superior Court Judge Robert Bell also will allow the court to rule on whether the board violated N.C. Open Meetings Law by holding unannounced emergency meetings to fire Phyllis Handford and Sandra Moss, attorneys for both sides said.

Handford and Moss were fired as head and deputy head of the west Charlotte charter school in December, less than five months after it opened. After state officials demanded answers to complaints about the school, the board hired a consulting firm that reported extensive financial, management and academic problems.

Those issues, which were reported in the Observer in February, included unpaid bills, inflated staffing and administrative salaries, undocumented expenses and a school in academic disarray, according to documents and affidavits filed in response to the suit.

The allegations prompted state charter officials to demand additional explanation of the problems and the plan to repay $600,000 in debt. The N.C. Charter School Advisory Board will decide in April whether to recommend closing the school.

At a Tuesday hearing, Stephon Bowens, attorney for Handford and Moss, took issue with some of the allegations made in defense filings.

But he and Richard Vinroot, attorney for the board, agreed that the women’s performance isn’t the issue in the lawsuit. Instead, it is whether the women’s one-year contracts entitled them to a full year’s pay or whether the board had a right to fire them at will.

“We don’t need a reason,” Vinroot argued. “We can be right, wrong or indifferent.”

Handford’s contract as head of school was for $90,000 and Moss’ as deputy was for $84,000. When the board, which included Handford and Moss, applied for a charter those salaries were budgeted at $65,000 and $55,000.

In court documents and interviews, board Chairman Victor Mack said Handford’s contract was in a stack of documents she gave him in July and he signed it without noticing the increase. He said Handford then gave Moss a raise.

This week Bowens filed an affidavit from Connell Handford Jr., a son of Phyllis Handford who was on the founding board.

Connell Handford says in the affidavit that Phyllis Handford and Moss gave the board a revised budget in June and noted that “salaries for many of the school’s employees had been adjusted for market consistency.” The affidavit also says that Mack told the board in July that Handford’s contract had been signed.

Bowens said documents filed by the defendants incorrectly described the StudentFirst jobs performed by Handford’s husband and another son. Connell Handford Sr., a licensed pediatric respiratory therapist, was hired as a school health assistant, not the school nurse, Bowens said.

He said Jonathan Handford, a recent college graduate, was a part-time assistant, not the “CFO or bookkeeper,” as a consultant’s affidavit described him.

Handford, Moss and all members of Handford’s family were fired and/or removed from the board during emergency board meetings held at a hotel and a board member’s home. After the lawsuit alleged that those meetings were illegal, the board voted again at its January meeting to “ratify” the decisions.

Bowens said Handford and Moss no longer expect to be reinstated at StudentFirst but they want the full year’s pay. “It has created a true hardship on their families,” he said.