Attorneys representing two PACE Academy parents filed a complaint Wednesday against the State Board of Education over alleged violations of the Public Records Act.
According to the complaint, because of the board’s delay in providing the records, and their incompleteness, PACE attorneys could not present all of the evidence at a hearing that could have kept the Carrboro-based charter school open.
The Board of Education voted to revoke PACE’s charter May 13, and an administrative law judge closed the school in mid-August.
The plaintiffs are also asking the court to force the Board of Education to provide the records.
By Thursday at 4 p.m., the state had provided an additional 300 pages of documents, said Stacey Gahagan, one of the attorneys representing PACE parents. The original request for 10 years’ of data had yielded only 70 pages.
PACE Academy serves about 130 students in grades 9-12. More than half of the students have developmental disabilities. Because of previous performance issues, the school was one year into a three-year settlement agreement when on May 13, on the State Board of Education voted to revoke its charter.
A report prepared for the state showed PACE inaccurately reported its enrollment, on which much of its state funding is based. It also had other significant recordkeeping and financial problems.
However, many parents have defended PACE, saying their children thrived there both academically and socially.
“This was a safe haven,” said Sherry Mergner, whose son, Noah, attended PACE Academy for one year. He has autism. “It was the best year he ever had.”
Noah, 16, had attended Northwood High School in Chatham County before enrolling at PACE. “He told me ‘I feel invisible there. The kids don’t see me,’” his mother said.
He since has returned to Northwood, which Mergner said can’t meet his academic and social needs. “He’s had more meltdowns in the past two weeks than he did in an entire year at PACE,” she said.
A week after PACE’s charter was revoked, its board of directors filed a petition with the state Office of Administrative Hearings to contest the decision. The hearing was scheduled for July 7.
To prepare, on May 29, PACE attorneys requested from the Department of Public Instruction and the board documentation on previous and pending charter school revocations dating back to 2005.
Emails included in the complaint suggest that throughout June, Department of Public Instruction Communications and Information Services Director Vanessa Jeter, did not respond to several requests for updates on the status of the records.
In July, only after PACE lawyers asked the state attorney general’s office to help expedite the request, did Jeter provide the records, although they were incomplete.
“I thought that it had taken so long because of the time it would take to gather the records, Gahagan said. “When we did finally get a response, it was only 70 pages for 10 years of data.”
Laura Crumpler, special deputy attorney general, told the plaintiffs in an email that there was “confusion” about the request and that it was quite broad.
However, PACE lawyers say Jeter never asked them to narrow or clarify the request, which could have expedited the process.
Throughout August, even after PACE lawyers filed a second and more limited request, they say they received no response from Crumpler or Katie Cornetto, State Board of Education attorney, other than that Cornetto would “check on the status of the request.”
On Aug. 13, Administrative Law Judge Phil Berger Jr. ordered PACE to close, even though school was scheduled to start 10 days later.
Cornetto said Friday that she was limited in what she could say because of the litigation. However, she said, the department is “committed to providing public records.”
“We tried to make a refined response to the issues” laid out in the original request, Cornetto said. “There was certainly a miscommunication early on.”
Around the time of PACE’s request, the director of the Office of Charter Schools, Joel Medley, resigned, which also contributed to the delay, Cornetto said.
Cornetto said the plaintiffs should receive the rest of the records early next week.
To appeal the judge’s order to close, PACE must file a petition for judicial review in Orange County Superior Court by Sept. 12.