Panel suggests DA investigate diplomas given by Durham charter school

A Durham charter school could face a criminal investigation into how dozens of students over the past three years received high school diplomas they did not earn.

Leaders of Kestrel Heights School say at least 53 students received diplomas when they hadn’t met state graduation requirements, and the problem could go further back than 2014. In response, the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board recommended Friday that the State Board of Education refer the matter to the Durham County District Attorney’s Office to determine if a criminal investigation is warranted.

“Somebody needs to investigate to make sure that it was something negligent and not something that was intentional,” said Steven Walker, vice chairman of the advisory board.

Mark Tracy, executive director of Kestrel Heights, declined comment Friday. He said he needed to discuss the issue first with his board.

The State Board will hold a conference call meeting Monday to discuss the case.

“This is something that the board is going to have to decide on, but this is an extremely serious matter and we’re going to address it quickly,” Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board, said Friday afternoon.

Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said any decision he made about an investigation would depend on the information provided by state education officials.

“If based on the information they give us it appears there’s conduct that could violate state laws, then I would ask the appropriate law enforcement agency to investigate it,” he said.

State education leaders stressed the need to thoroughly look into the issue so the public will have confidence in the value of a North Carolina high school diploma. State leaders have promoted how North Carolina’s graduation rate hit an all-time high of 85.8 percent last school year.

“This is not a charter issue, this is not a traditional (schools) issue,” said Tony Helton, a member of the advisory board. “This is an issue for all schools that any student that graduates from any school in North Carolina has completed the courses they are required to have on their diploma.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. There are 167 charter schools statewide, including 73 with high school students.

Charters, like their traditional public school counterparts, are required to meet the state’s graduation requirements for issuing diplomas. But the state does not actively check on each high school and instead leaves it up to individual schools to make sure students are meeting requirements.

School districts may send staff to help traditional public schools check on graduation eligibility.

It’s unclear how nearly a third of Kestrel Heights’ 173 graduates since 2014 got their diplomas when they hadn’t earned them. Kestrel is a 1,016-student K-12 school that opened in 1998.

Tracy told the advisory board on Thursday that the former school guidance counselor and the former high school principal should have noticed the issues when they were reviewing student transcripts. The school first discovered potential problems in July and reported them to the state in October.

Advisory board members said the state’s PowerSchool information system should have alerted school staff that the students didn’t have the necessary credits to graduate. Some board members questioned whether the computer records were overridden by school employees.

“If we were talking one or two kids, I would say, ‘You know people can make a mistake,’ ” Walker said. “But when you get something in the 50s, I wonder if this is something that was done on purpose.”

There have been other instances of North Carolina students getting diplomas when they hadn’t earned them. In 2011, the principal of Garinger Leadership and Public Service School in Charlotte resigned after awarding diplomas to 11 students who hadn't met the requirements – including the small school’s valedictorian.

Cobey said the public should still feel confident in the state’s graduation numbers. Cobey also said he’s against setting up a new system for checking graduation eligibility because it would be unnecessary and divert resources that could be allocated elsewhere.

“My experience with educators is that they are people of very high character,” Cobey said. “Is it going to be perfect? No, obviously.

“I believe this is an isolated case,” he continued. “Are there other isolated cases? Maybe. But I have a very high-level trust in the educators in this state.”

The timing isn’t great for Kestrel, whose charter expires June 30. The advisory board, whose duties include reviewing new charter applicants and schools facing renewal, had previously recommended that Kestrel get a full 10-year renewal.

But on Friday, the advisory board rescinded its prior recommendation. The board’s new motion includes recommending that the State Board not decide on Kestrel’s charter renewal until an investigation is completed.

Other parts of the advisory board’s motion include:

▪ Recommend putting Kestrel Heights on governance non-compliance status;

▪ Direct the school to provide to the state Office of Charter Schools the names of the former guidance counselor and former high school principal for possible action against their education licenses;

▪ Direct Kestrel to conduct a full investigation, including identifying how many students as far back as 2008 may have been affected. The information is to be turned over by Jan. 3.

State officials credited Kestrel for reporting the matter before the renewal vote.

“I would hope that we would consider all the extenuating circumstances before we made a final decision about whether we will renew the charter,” Cobey said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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