The case of a charter school that granted diplomas to students who had not earned enough credits to graduate is now in the hands of a prosecutor.
The State Board of Education on Monday asked the Durham County district attorney to investigate Kestrel Heights School. Katie Cornetto, the board’s attorney, said a prosecutor’s investigation offers “an opportunity for an outside review for potential criminal misconduct.”
Kestrel Heights leaders told the state’s Charter School Advisory Board last week that it had given at least 53 diplomas in the last three years to students who had not earned them, representing nearly one-third of the school’s graduates. The advisory board suggested referring the matter to the local prosecutor, setting the course for consideration by the education board.
Dave Machado, director of the state charter school office, said Monday students lacked credits for courses that covered the spectrum from physical education to English to math.
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The board voted unanimously to forward the case to the local prosecutor, though board member Tricia Willoughby initially suggested the referral was premature. Until this point, information about Kestrel graduates missing credits is based on the school’s self-review.
“Without any external review, why make the leap?” Willoughby asked. She also wondered how the board can make sure charter schools comply with the law. “This is a lot of students and a lot of tax dollars.”
The state has a law against falsifying documents, including high school diplomas.
Kestrel Heights is in southeast Durham near Research Triangle Park. Even counting the unearned diplomas, the school had a four-year graduation rate of just 73 percent, lower than the rate for Durham County high schools and lower than the state rate of 85.8 percent.
The state’s charter advisory board was considering recommending a 10-year renewal of Kestrel’s charter, the maximum term under law. That is now on hold while a more complete examination of the problem is underway. The school’s charter expires in June, and it is now on what Machado described as “the highest watch list.”
The advisory board has asked the school to look back to 2008 to check for more students with unearned diplomas. Kestrel is set to deliver its report to the state in early January.
Stephon Bowens, Kestrel’s lawyer, attended the meeting but offered no new information when asked by reporters.
On the eve of graduation in early June, Kestrel staff told the school’s executive director that eight seniors did not have enough credits to graduate, Machado said. The school later did a complete review of all this year’s graduates and found 22 lacked required credits. It found more problems with ineligible graduates going back to the class of 2014.
The high school’s counselor took a medical leave in mid-August and then resigned in September, according to a report from Kestrel.