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Former executive director sues charter school

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Thomas Schuck

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By Amelia Harper
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 12, 2017

TARBORO — The former executive director of North East Carolina Prep School is fighting back against his October dismissal in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against the charter school, its board of directors and the five board members who voted to fire him.

Thomas Schuck, the former executive director of Edgecombe County’s only charter school, was hired by the board of directors of North East Carolina Prep on April 22, 2016, and fired on Oct. 28, 2016, after a 23-minute closed session during which his fate was decided. Board members for the charter school will not comment on a reason for Schuck’s dismissal. However, Schuck argues in a lawsuit filed at the Edgecombe County Courthouse that the dismissal was made in retaliation for Schuck’s attempts to clean house at North East Carolina Prep and to correct mismanagement issues that were plaguing the school.

Schuck is suing five board members directly as part of the lawsuit including board Chairman Othar Woodard, and board members Troy Lewis, Jennifer Watson of Halifax County, Jeffery Alejandro of Pitt County and Lisa Winstead, who was voted onto the board of directors minutes before the vote was taken to dismiss Schuck. Schuck is demanding in excess of $75,000 and punitive damages for claims of breach of contract, retaliation, wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, wrongful interference with contract and defamation.

In the lawsuit, Schuck outlines four major issues that he feels led to his dismissal. These issues include alleged thwarted attempts to correct financial and record-keeping irregularities at the school and retaliation for suspending a student who was reportedly the dependent of a former board member and was implicated in a drug transaction that led to an overdose of a student on school grounds.

In the lawsuit, Schuck said he discovered the “gravity of the situation” at North East Carolina Prep when he first assumed the mantle of leadership last summer and learned that the school was “facing a $600,000 budget shortfall for the upcoming 2016-17 school year, North East Carolina Prep was delinquent on several mandatory N.C. Department of Public Instruction reports, staff turnover at the school was high and there were numerous record keeping issues” at the school, the lawsuit states.

As part of an overall effort to correct the budget shortfall, Schuck said he discovered that a former North East Carolina Prep employee, who was also a former member of the board of directors of the school, was still receiving health insurance from the school despite the fact he was no longer employed there. This former employee is also identified as a member of the Tarboro Town Council at the time, where he worked with two defendants in the lawsuit: Woodard, who also serves on the Tarboro Town Council and Tarboro Town Manager Troy Lewis. The information describes Taro Knight, who died in December after losing a battle with acute myeloid leukemia.

Schuck said he was concerned about paying “these significant non-employee health care expenses” especially in light of the school’s financial situation. Schuck said he consulted with the school’s legal counsel, who agreed that the expenses should not be paid. However, the lawsuit states that Woodard “became upset” with Schuck over the issue.

The lawsuit alleges that Schuck’s “refusal to unlawfully spend state and North East Carolina Prep funds led to subsequent retaliation” by Woodard and the board of directors.

The second issue involved Schuck’s reported discovery of a number of serious record-keeping irregularities including the possible over-reporting of student enrollment figures upon which state funding is based, alteration of student grades and/or transcripts to boost school performance rates, deficiencies in providing appropriate state and federally funded services to exceptional/special needs students and reported instances of fraud and abuse in the free/reduced lunch program.

In the lawsuit, Schuck states that when these matters were presented to the North East Carolina Prep board of directors, “instead of seriously seeking to rectify these issues, the board of directors were not happy with Plaintiff for pursuing these issues and later retaliated against Plaintiff for pursuing these issues.”

The third issue, which occurred in September, involved Schuck’s suspension of a student for the remainder of the school year because he was involved in a drug transaction. The suit alleges that Woodward contacted Schuck and urged him to reconsider the suspension of the student, who was reportedly the dependent of a former board member and friend of Woodard. When Schuck refused to do so because of the seriousness of the situation in which another student overdosed as a result of the drug transaction, Woodard reportedly told Schuck that the board was “done with him.”

The fourth issue involved alleged financial irregularities at the “Husky Store,” an on-campus store that sells school supplies and uniforms to students and their families. Schuck said he was initially told that the financial operations of the store were separate from North East Carolina Prep funds. However, by Oct. 1, Schuck learned that the store received its funding from the school.

Schuck said he then asked defendant Lisa Winstead, who at that time was a parent volunteer in charge of the store, to report on the accounting practices, operation and inventory of the store. When Winstead was unable to provide the requested information, Schuck informed Winstead the Husky Store would be closed as of Oct. 18 until the financial operations were properly investigated.

On Oct 28, 10 days after the store was closed, the North East Carolina Prep board of directors held a special called meeting in which Winstead was voted onto the board of directors just prior to the closed session during which the decision to fire Schuck was made.

North East Carolina Prep has not yet responded to the allegations brought forth in the lawsuit. William Etheridge, the current acting executive director for North East Carolina Prep, said he would issue a response at a later time after conferring with the board attorney.

Dr. Deanna Townsend-Smith, assistant director of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction Office of Charter Schools, recently confirmed that the charter for North East Carolina Prep does not expire until 2022. However, she did say that the school is currently on the continually low-performing list of charter schools. This year, the school is under a five-year mandatory review by the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board.

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