Both sides happy with Judge’s ruling to throw out Excellence suit. It now goes to appeals court for final decision in time for September opening at Excellence
Both sides in the struggle over the future of Excellence Academy Charter School left Fourth District Court smiling Monday, but the fight to keep Excellence Academy open is far from over.
Fourth District Court Judge Scott Leehy granted a motion by attorneys for the Monroe City School Board to dismiss a law suit by Excellence Academy challenging the board’s decision to close the school as a breach of contract.
Leehy’s ruling clears the way for the case to be heard by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals which will decide whether Leehy’s interpretation of the law is correct.
Since the case is being appealed, it means the final decision about whether Excellence is still unresolved.
At issue is whether the city school board followed state law when it decided not to allow the charter school to complete the 5th year of its contract.
The School Board’s Position
The school board contends, and Judge Leehy agreed, that the district is not required to extend the school’s contract for a fifth year, noting that granting a fifth year was discretionary. He said evidence showed that MCSB complied with its review obligations, and the school has not proven an abuse of discretion on the board’s part.
Leehy said the board hired a third-party reviewer who reviewed the school’s, academics, finances, and governance and conducted a hearing after being ordered to do so by the Federal Court. The board decided after reviewing the report and conducting the hearing, the judge said.
In several days of testimony, the school board focused its case on the school’s executive director Roosevelt Wright, Jr., a volunteer advisor to the Excellence School Board. The board introduced testimony from its consultant that because Wright was the Pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, the school’s lessor, that he was, in fact, the owner of the church and personally the recipient of the $29,000 monthly lease the school paid to Tabernacle.
The consultant could not produce any documents to prove her claim, neither could she produce contracts she said existed between the school and companies owned by Wright and sons.
The board introduced numerous checks written to Wright’s sons and wife for receipted reimbursements as evidence of Ethics violations. The consultant testified that when the school reimbursed Wright or his family members for items they purchased for the school that the reimbursements were contracts and evidenced unethical actions.
In testimony, the district did not explain why it never raised a question about reimbursements over the course the four years of the contract.
Ethics Arguments Unnecessary
The Trial quickly shifted focus from the merits of the charter school to what Wright testified was a “Get Roosevelt” witch hunt.
However, Monday, Leehy said ethics arguments of the school board were not a factor in his decision, which he concluded were “unnecessary.” He said he reached his conclusion based on his interpretation of the law.
“The court heard much testimony an argument with regard to whether Excellence Academy’s executive director is required to comply with the Code of Governmental Ethics, but it is not necessary for the court to reach that issue. It was MCSB’s prerogative to consider possible conflicts of interest or problems with governance in terms of whether Excellence Academy had complied with the requirements of the charter Agreement.” Leehy wrote.
While Excellence Attorneys, Jim Roundtree, Eddie Clark, and Tony Bruscato were not pleased with the dismissal they were happy that the case will move quickly to the court of appeals, which will hear arguments on the merits of the case, rather than what Clark called, “chasing rabbits” about whether there was a receipt for a purchase or how much rent the school pays.
Praying for a Dismissal
Before the opening Monday’s court session, attorneys told Wright that he should pray that the judge dismisses the school’s suit, freeing the school to quickly appeal the case to the appeals court in time for the school to open in September.
Without the dismissal, Excellence attorneys believe the district would have continued its personal attacks on the Wright family and Tabernacle for several more days, running out the clock for the school to open on time in September.
Excellence Academy contends that the district gave the school a five-year contract that required the district to review whether it was doing what it contracted to do. If it was performing as contracted, the school was to be allowed to finish its five years.
The school contends that instead of reviewing the provisions of its contract, the board erroneously reviewed it using tough standards used to judge whether a school should be given five more years.
The school’s contract requires the school to establish unique approaches to instruction, a program of music and performing arts while using a research based curriculum.
“Instead of reviewing the contract the district decided to make it personal and launched a “Get Roosevelt” and his family attack. While we disagree with Judge Leehy’s interpretation of the law, we are pleased that he saw the personal attacks against my family and me as unnecessary, especially since we have not been accused by anyone of committing a crime,” Wright said.
“Crying on Test Day”
Vidrine said preliminary information leads him to believe that Excellence will be an F school when scores are released in the fall. Wright said he would not be surprised if the school performance drops since the students at Excellence had to take Leap Tests on the morning they were told that their school would be closed.
“We had students crying, and faculty upset, frustrated and angry. Many students refused to take the test at all, saying “What’s the use, they’re going to close our school,” Wright said.
“What superintendent takes steps to insure that students are given shut down news during testing and then rejoices because he expects them not to do well?” said Wright.
Vidrine urged all students to report to school next week when the district opens school.
Wright said Excellence is scheduled to open on September 5th. He said any parent that needs a baby sitter until September should send their students to the district then bring them back to Excellence after it opens.
No Free Press coverage
Earlier in the trial, attorneys for the school board complained that the Free Press covered the trial, but should not have been able to do so because Wright was under a court order not to discuss the case.
Media reporters were allowed in the courtroom, including a reporter for the Free Press, but because Wright owned the Free Press, its reports, which gave a different view of the proceedings than the Newsstar, should be prohibited.
Wright said he and Vidrine were never placed under sequestration and the ban on the Free Press coverage of the trial, while not an official judicial order, was a limitation of the paper’s first amendment right to free speech.
Newsstar’s Ownership Reports
In addition to attacks on the Wright family, the district questioned the rents paid to the New Tabernacle Baptist Church, the owner of the school facility.
The district claimed in testimony that the rent was excessively high and questionable. Their arguments were supported by erroneous reports in the Newsstar that the facility was purchased with public funds, but will revert to the ownership of New Tabernacle if the school closes.
Wright said the church developed a 25-year plan in 2000. Included in the plan was the establishment of a school, health clinic, infant daycare and a business incubator, he said.
He said in 2011 the church bought the old Dixie Bedding building with the expectation of implementing its 25-year plan. He said former superintendent Kathleen Harris asked New Tabernacle to form a charter school to be housed in the Sherrouse School complex. The board approved the proposal in December of 2012, along with another effort led by then Neville principal Brent Vidrine.
He said immediately after approval of the charter schools the board fired Dr. Harris and denied Excellence access to the Sherrouse complex as promised by Harris. However, the board told the Tabernacle congregation if it could find a facility and be opened by September of 2013 then it could proceed.
The church then decided to renovate and lease the Dixie Property to Excellence with the understanding that it would pay for the costs of renovating the facility to meet the school’s needs, Wright said
To meet the challenge of renovating the school in 52 days, the church borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks and individuals and adjusted its rent to the school to reflect repayment of the renovation costs.
Wright said for four years the district never questioned the lease arrangements because everyone knew the loans were being repaid and that in the second term there would be little or no lease payments.
The Newsstar joined what Wright called a “smear campaign” by continuously reporting that public funds were being used to purchase a facility that would be given to a church. “They know that is not true, but they keep reporting it anyway. Fortunately, we are not at the mercy of the Newsstar’s erroneous reports,” Wright said.