WECT Investigates: Culture of retaliation, mismanagement alleged at troubled charter school

Published: Feb. 3, 2020 at 6:58 PM EST
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - A lawsuit filed in New Hanover County Superior Court alleges a charter school has not only skirted federal law, but retaliated against those who pushed back against school leadership.

In recent weeks, the board at Coastal Preparatory Academy (CPA) parted ways with the leader of its lower school, Jamie Getz, who figures prominently in the lawsuit and other complaints from parents and teachers to state agencies.

However, parents and former faculty who spoke with WECT said they aren’t sure the move will solve the charter school’s problems.

When it opened in 2017, CPA promised a unique educational environment for students in kindergarten through eighth grade — from flexible seating in classrooms to utilization of classical teaching styles and the popular Singapore Math curriculum.

Like all North Carolina charter schools, CPA is a “public school of choice” with open enrollment. The school, located on the New Hanover-Pender county line, accepts students from those two counties as well as Brunswick, Onslow, and Bladen counties.

According to its mission statement, the school is designed for “improving the lives of its students by providing authentic learning experiences in a collaborative, nurturing environment.”

While charter schools have some flexibility compared to traditional public schools, they are still required to follow state and federal education laws, including those that relate to equitable access to education, and provisions in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“If you have a child that’s classified as an exceptional child ... you are protected under federal law,” said Adrian Wood, a North Carolina education and parenting blogger with a doctorate in educational research who CPA parents have reached out to with their concerns. “So you can call DPI and say, ‘You know what, they [the school] are not following these things.’”

However, those who have raised concerns about federal laws at CPA allege a culture of retaliation.

A lawsuit was filed in New Hanover County Superior Court on Dec. 12, 2019, by former employee Kim Nelson against CPA and its parent company Wilmington Education Organization, the board of the school, board chair Christopher Millis and former head of school Jamie Getz, both in her professional and personal capacity.

The lawsuit alleges Nelson was wrongfully terminated, discriminated against and retaliated against, violating the North Carolina Whistleblower Act.

Nelson’s suit invokes whistleblower protections because she claims her termination in October 2018 was the result of the educator questioning the school’s handling of student attendance in the wake of Hurricane Florence and reaching out to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction for clarification.

According to the complaint, Nelson is a licensed school social worker who in her 23-year career before CPA worked at Onslow, Pender and Forsyth county schools. She was reportedly hired by CPA in October 2017 as a child advocacy specialist. Her responsibilities, according to the complaint, included handling reviews of custody papers, compulsory attendance, support for parents and staff and as a liaison with Child Protective Services.

The complaint stated she also worked as the school’s 504 coordinator and end-of-year test coordinator, both of which she had never done before, so she reportedly sought training through NCDPI.

When Hurricane Florence hit the following year in 2018, CPA closed from Sept. 11 until Sept. 27.

Florence dropped catastrophic rainfall over the Cape Fear region, leading to thousands of water and helicopter evacuations from homes in Pender County, where many students who attend CPA reside, as well as in the other counties served by the school.

The complaint states: “the dislocation and homelessness of CPA students and families triggered duties on the part of CPA to comply with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.”

The McKinney-Vento act ensures students affected by homelessness — including temporary displacement due to a natural disaster like a hurricane — receive the same educational benefits as other students.

Nelson’s complaint states she was given “specific instructions from CPA and [Jamie] Getz to focus on attendance and resources under McKinney-Vento when school reopened for students."

However, the complaint alleges when Nelson attempted to follow the law, she was retaliated against by Getz and the board.

According to the complaint, parents at CPA were sent a survey by the school to establish their housing and transportation situation after the storm, and that a parent volunteer group called Coastal Collaborative would be assisting those in need.

Nelson’s suit argues she was worried about potential Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) violations because a student’s living situation is considered confidential information.

On Sept. 27, when students returned, the complaint alleges a student’s absence was marked as “unexcused” because an employee “knew the roads in the area where the student lived were clear.”

The complaint states Nelson was concerned for a number of reasons: Public schools in Pender County were still closed and unexcused absences are looked at unfavorably under the state’s compulsory attendance laws.

Given these concerns, Nelson reportedly contacted the Office of Charter Schools at NCDPI “for clarification and guidance” on how to handle the situation. The office reportedly responded and said the absence should be “excused” and that CPA should be diligent in making sure students received assistance under McKinney-Vento.

The complaint alleges Nelson was terminated the following day, claiming “Getz specifically cited Nelson’s email to the Director of Charter Schools as a reason for the termination of Nelson’s employment.”

Nelson was then reportedly escorted from the campus, despite the school board having not considered the question of her employment contract.

On Oct. 4, the board went into closed session, then voted unanimously to terminate Nelson’s at-will employment contract, despite the employee having asked the board about filing a grievance to resolve her concerns the day before.

The lawsuit claims the list of reasons Getz provided to the board for Nelson’s termination “were false and pretext for retaliation, discrimination, and the unlawful termination of Nelson’s employment in violation of the North Carolina Whistleblower Act.”

At the time of publication, a judge had granted a 30-day extension for the defendants to file a response to the lawsuit, moving the deadline to March 2.

WECT reached out to both sides, and Nelson’s attorney said the firm could not comment on pending litigation.

Attorneys for the defendants said their clients did not wish to make any comments regarding the allegations.

Nelson’s suit also alleges the school has a "pattern and practice of failing and refusing to follow federal laws and regulations, especially laws and regulations related to homeless students, Section 504 students, and students with Individualized Education Programs [IEPs].”

And she isn’t the only employee to allege retaliation for speaking up about said potential violations of federal law.

Editor’s note: A former CPA teacher spoke with WECT her experience at the school, but did not want to be named for fear of losing her new job. WECT has elected to call her Ms. Pandion, after the street address for CPA.

Ms. Pandion provided emails documenting her time at the school and interactions with Getz, and detailed her concerns to WECT about how IEPs and 504 plans were not being properly executed — something also mentioned in Nelson’s lawsuit, but not in detail.

Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and plans to satisfy Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are federally-required accommodations for students who have an identified learning or other disability.

As a teacher who had extensive experience in different kinds of North Carolina schools, Ms. Pandion said she was initially enthusiastic about joining the CPA staff, but her experience went south quickly.

She alleged when she began as a new teacher, she was not given access to IEPs and 504 plans for the students in her class with special learning needs and required accommodations, despite asking for them.

According to records obtained by WECT, Ms. Pandion eventually filed a complaint with NCDPI, to which CPA staff responded they do provide the required resources to teachers for students with IEPs and 504 plans. They attributed the issue with her to be one of failed “onboarding,” and told the state they were working to streamline the process to avoid similar problems.

Records indicated NCDPI determined no further action was required, but the office “highly suggests the school implement a standard onboarding process for new staff members (that come on board at any time of the year) that includes the following: receipt of staff and any other relevant handbooks; meeting with EC staff to discuss IEP/504 plans; relevant account login information; all basic school operational information an employee would need based on the position.”

Another teacher sent an anonymous letter to Wood detailing a similar experience, which Wood published on her blog and social media pages.

As a parent herself, Wood said she has been shocked at these responses from school leadership.

“Retaliation just has no place in public education and I have seen and witnessed it firsthand with this group,” she said.

Parents have also alleged the mishandling of IEPs and 504 plans and retaliation for pushing back against school leadership.

Wood said she has heard from many and see documentation supporting allegations that students with special learning needs were not properly accommodated.

“What I saw firsthand, and I heard a lot of things but you know you have to be careful with what you hear and what you see, I did see several documents from Coastal Prep and one in particular had the numbers written of the child being served and the principal had written a less amount of time so there’s a handwritten document that shows we are not serving what we are supposed to,” she said.

In March 2019, parents called for Getz to resign over the alleged mismanagement they say they saw at the school.

One parent described a scene where her child was verbally abused and physically threatened, while another mother said her son was “singled out” for having an IEP.

Getz did not return WECT’s requests for comment at that time.

At least one parent filed a complaint with NCDPI over the handling of their son’s IEP. He eventually left the school because the family felt there was no other choice.

WECT reached out to many former parents at the school, but those who responded said they were hesitant to talk to the media for fear of harming their children, who have since moved on to new schools.

Wood said what she has seen and heard are concerning as a parent, but also as someone who has studied education policy.

“Other things that have happened, particularly with IEP’s, documentation that I have seen firsthand where I know that this is breaking federal law, it’s a concern,” she said.

Other parents shared their support for Getz, both at the time and at the board’s first meeting since separating with the head of school, which WECT attended.

The TeamCFA system, with which CPA is affiliated, is not unfamiliar with allegations of mismanagement.

WRAL reported allegations from a former employee of “harassment, bullying, grade tampering, financial conflicts of interest and even unwanted sexual advances and interference in people’s personal lives.”

That employee, who was the head of school at Pine Springs Preparatory, claimed she was also retaliated against when she pushed back about practices at her school.

The regional director, who was involved with getting the existing TeamCFA schools in North Carolina started, stepped away from the organization in 2019.

The CPA board has not connected its separation with Getz to the pending lawsuit or complaints from parents.

When WECT requested the former head of school’s personnel information, the school returned that on Jan. 3, Getz was “separated from employment (non-disciplinary termination).”

The CPA board also provided a statement to WECT regarding the situation, saying in part: “We would like to stress that the Board did not come to this decision lightly. Our decision was based on our goals of maintaining effective leadership and remaining consistent to our school’s mission. The Board members believe that the decision to hire a new Head of School was most certainly the correct decision for our teachers and students to reach their highest potential.”

At its regularly-scheduled meeting on Jan. 28, the board handed out print outs of a document responding to emails from at least a dozen CPA families asking for details, but went into closed session without discussing the issue further.

The board said it is attempting to have Getz release the school of its legal obligation to keep confidential certain aspects of the separation, but until that happens they can not share any details.

Some believe the removal of one employee may not solve the school’s ongoing issues.

“I will tell you particularly that’s concerning to me is that I sent many an email and made many a phone call to the entire board and they were made aware of things I’ve just described to you, falsified IEP data ... and they did nothing a year ago,” she said. “So the fact that they’ve just done something now doesn’t make me feel good.”

WECT will update this story if new information becomes available.

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