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Thursday December 14th 2017

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Malcolm Thomas’ Latest Headache

Possible Cover Up of Grade Tampering
By Rick Outzen

Some Newpoint High School teachers pressured to change the grades of seniors became livid. Others broke down in tears.

Cheat? It wasn’t who they were or wanted to be. They were caught between losing their jobs if they didn’t comply or losing their teacher certificates if authorities found out.

A year ago, a Newpoint employee called the office of the Escambia Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas. She knew the call might get her fired, but she could no longer stand the lying and deceit at her charter school.

Teachers were being pressured to change grades. Students in the companion middle school, Newpoint Academy, were complaining of being harassed by a teacher. Funds raised by the student government association had disappeared. Principal John Graham had chosen to ignore the complaints from teachers, parents and students. Superintendent Thomas was her last hope. Maybe he would intervene and investigate.

Thomas did not.

The Newpoint schools finished their school years with no report to the Escambia County School Board of any problems. On March 16, 2015, Gov. Rick Scott handed Newpoint High and Newpoint Academy checks for $11,392 and $15,861 respectively for their high performance during the 2013-14 school year.

Fearing for their jobs and worried their families might be harmed, whistleblowers agreed to interviews with the paper under the condition that Inweekly wouldn’t reveal their names until the state attorney’s investigation was completed.

The story of Newpoint is more than whistleblowers coming forward with allegations of altered grades, cheating on tests, harassment and mismanagement. The documents received and interviews conducted show that Thomas knew of the allegations for nearly a year.

However, the superintendent did little to help the teachers and students at the Newpoint schools. He didn’t began investigating Newpoint in earnest until School Board member Jeff Bergosh, the media and State Attorney Bill Eddins began asking questions this past March.

Newpoint Hierarchy
Since the State Attorney’s office announced its investigation in April, teachers, students and parents have come forward with information of improprieties.

The Escambia County School District’s charter school agreements for the Pensacola Newpoint schools, which also include an elementary school, Five Flags Academy, are with 21st Century Academy of Pensacola, Inc., a nonprofit Florida corporation that was formed in 2010. The company only added local board members last year, according to annual reports filed with the Florida Secretary of State.

The registered agent is Cambridge Education Group, a charter school management company based in Ohio that assumed controlled of several charter schools once run by White Hat Management, which got in trouble with school districts in Ohio and Florida for poor performance and reportedly taking high management fees.

Cambridge’s executive director, John Stack, and head of operations, David Stiles, both worked for White Hat. Stiles is also the vice president of operations for Newpoint Education Partners (NEP), the for-profit Florida corporation formed in 2008 with Carla Lovett, former Supervisor of Secondary Education for the Bay County School District, as its registered agent. Lovett heads up curriculum for Cambridge and NEP. She also is the principal of a Newpoint charter school in Bay County. NEP has the contract to manage the Pensacola Newpoint schools.

On its website, NEP states its executives have “collectively led the development and launch of over 75 schools and is keenly aware of the financial and support resources necessary to facilitate the start-up of a new school or the take-over and continuation of an existing school.”

The company manages 10 charter schools in Florida. Its Pensacola high school was the only one with an A grade. Four have F grades; one has a D grade, and four have C grades.  The Pensacola high school has had an “A” every year since it opened in Escambia County in the 2012 school year. West Florida High is the only other “A” high school in the county.

May 2014 Phone Calls
When the superintendent’s office received the call in May 2014, Thomas was out. His administrative assistant, Cathy Irwin, was told Newpoint teachers were changing student’s grades so seniors would meet graduation requirements. Irwin took notes and read them back to the whistleblower to be sure she had the facts correct.

“Teachers were crying, they were angry because they were being told to change grades,” the whistleblower told Inweekly. “I called and said if you look in the system you will see them changing the grades right before your very eyes.”

When she finished the call, other teachers came forward with similar stories, so the whistleblower went outside and called the district again to report the additional information. She said that Irwin told her, “Ok, Mr. Thomas knows. He’s aware of the situation, and we are looking into it.”

The employee thought, ‘Oh good, they are sitting at their computers and watching this happen.’

With graduation only a week away, she thought that the district would place a hold on Newpoint’s graduation until the grade tampering could be investigated.

District emails verified the phone calls and showed communication between Irwin and Vickie Mathis, the Director of Alternative Education.

On May 22, 2014, Irwin sent an email to Mathis informing her that the whistleblower had reported the Spanish and Chemistry teachers told her they were told to give seniors “A’s” so they would graduate. Newpoint principal John Graham backed up the order, according to the Newpoint employee.

Irwin wrote, “The Superintendent requested that I provide you with this tidbit of information.”

Mathis replied that she would call the Florida Department of Education for advice and contact the Newpoint board chair. In a second email to Irwin and Thomas, the Alternative Education director said the data specialist had identified two seniors with low GPAs. Mathis said he had left a phone message for the principal.

Later, Irwin emailed Mathis again, “…to mimic a telemarketer. But wait! There’s more.”

The whistleblower had given the names of teachers who had been told to change grades and the students whose grades were changed. She told Irwin that two teachers had made copies of all students’ current grades and commented, “If grades need to be changed, they would have to change them.”

These emails were part of a records harvest done by Superintendent Thomas to comply with a public record request made by Newpoint management. The records were gathered into a notebook. Inweekly received all the records under the tab, “Grade Changes.”

There were no follow-up emails between Mathis and Irwin after May 23 or any documentation that shows if the district’s investigator Gary Marsh investigated the allegations.

Did the whistleblower ever talk directly with Superintendent Thomas?

Yes, she said he called her, and they talked for about 28 minutes.

“I talked with Malcolm about all kinds of things, and thought, ‘wow, this guy is really available. He is the top dog.’ I was just honest with him, and he asked me questions: what about this, how does he (John Graham) handle that, what did he say when this happened?  I said, ‘Sir, I just want you to do the right thing. Please help us here.’

“He said, ‘I will. I’m looking into this.’”

She expected the district investigator to show up at the school the next week. She said, “If he had, the teachers would have told them everything.”

Unfortunately, she heard nothing more from the district about the grade tampering. Frustrated she asked My Father’s Vineyard associate pastor Kirk Sutek for advice. Sutek had met Thomas when he visited his church. He felt the best course was for her to put together all her evidence, and the minister would deliver the packet to the superintendent.

On May 28, 2014, Sutek dropped off the packet of information at district headquarters for Superintendent Thomas, but he told Inweekly that he had no way of knowing if the superintendent reviewed the material.

“I handed it to a secretary behind the desk,” he told the paper. “I have no idea if he received it or not.”

Did he hear back from the superintendent?

“No sir, not one word,” Rev. Sutek said. The school district did not include Sutek’s packet in the information received by Inweekly.

Sutek said that he had heard of the alleged grade tampering and other misconduct from his daughter and other youth who attended the church’s youth group. He has since pulled his daughter out of Newpoint. She now attends another private school.

While the whistleblower and Sutek were reaching out to the superintendent for help, two Newpoint students sent Thomas an email. The subject was “Urgent: From Students at Newpoint Pensacola High School.”

The junior and sophomore provided documentation that they believed showed a Newpoint teacher had stolen money raised by the Student Government Association over the school year.

“This incident was reported to Mr. Graham (our school director), Mrs. Koziara (our assistant director), students of SGA, David Stiles (Marcus May’s assistant) and Marcus May, the owner of Newpoint,” the students wrote. “No one has decided to take action of any kind.”

They added, “We know you are busy, but we just want things handled appropriately. Please help us if you can.”

Superintendent Thomas replied to them that he would take care of it, but nothing happened. The students enrolled in other district high schools for the 2014-15 school year.

More Allegations Surface
This past winter, allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior by a teacher surfaced prompting investigations by the school district and the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Middle school students complained of being forced to watch a film about Japan’s annual “Festival of the Steel Phallus.” Students circulated photos of the teacher standing before a screen with a large pink penis on it. They also watched a video of women playing soccer wearing thongs.

Inweekly received a few documents about the winter investigations from School Board member Jeff Bergosh, whose records were also part of the Newpoint public record request.

Bergosh is the one who brought forth the Newpoint allegations. The documents he released in late March were the catalyst for the State Attorney’s investigation.

On March 25, Bergosh was contacted by a whistleblower, who was frustrated that conditions at the charter school had deteriorated, and it appeared no one within the Newpoint organization or the district seemed to care.

The whistleblower sent Bergosh a 22-page report that detailed not only the grade tampering, but also told of unqualified teachers and substitutes and of teachers who stole school funds, watched porn in their classrooms, and inappropriately touched and interacted with high school and middle school students.

Bergosh wrote the next day on his blog, “The worst example a public charter school can set is cheating. Cheating to boost graduation rates, which ultimately raises school letter grades, that ultimately assists a school in receiving funds from the state for bonuses—is about the worst example any school could set.”

He was upset that the superintendent had not informed him of the allegations last summer and that the school was allowed to receive a check from Gov. Scott.

“I greeted the director of this school that allegedly cheated last week, congratulating him on this great accomplishment,” Bergosh wrote. “I feel like a sucker, based upon what I am now learning today. I feel like I got used like a useful idiot. And the Governor, he’s brought in for the photo-op—terrible!”

He said, “At a minimum, staff should have not invited this school to this ceremony because of all of the allegations of misconduct; why would they have this school come to an event celebrating hard work by schools that actually did the work to earn these grades?”

Bergosh told Inweekly that he was frustrated with the lack of openness from Superintendent Thomas. His text messages showed that Bergosh contacted both Thomas and the school board attorney, Donna Waters, about the phone call from the whistleblower.

He asked if Thomas had any recollection of receiving the packet from Rev. Sutek. The superintendent was evasive, never answering his question.

In Bergosh’s records, there were several references to the winter investigation of Newpoint. He forwarded to Waters his text messages from whistleblowers:

“Jan. 4 I asked Jeff Whitehurst by cell to speak to the district about the grade changing since he was part of it. I texted him their phone number since he teaches in Georgia now. He said he would speak to them by phone. He never did. He left Newpoint angry because he and (Tanya) Pope arranged the grade changing. He thought he was proving to John (Graham) how crooked he could be because he wanted Korziara’s job.”

“Jan. 21 Jennie Senter was scheduled three times to go speak to the district. She kept chickening out. She was going to tell them about the grade changing and (a student) grabbing her butt and leaving bruises.”

“DCF was at Newpoint Feb. 23 asking seniors if (Chris) Fowler told them to cut school or not a couple weeks prior. Two kids told the truth. The rest of the kids discussed the issue and decided to lie to DCF and told them Fowler did not say it.”

The text messages also indicated that Carolyn Reese, a former social studies teacher for the 7th and 8th grades, planned to talk with the district.

In the public records compiled by Superintendent Thomas is a handwritten, sworn statement by Reese. It’s dated Jan. 5, 2015 and witnessed by Vickie Mathis. Reese worked at Newpoint Academy from August 2011-August 2014.

Reese wrote about teachers leaving and how dirty the school was. She had to teach her students “mostly by paper due to the computers were always down.” During the 2013-14 school year, she often had 26 students, both middle and high school grades, in her class, a violation of the state’s class-size law. She wrote that she had heard high school teachers had to change grades for seniors to graduate.

Reese said there had been numerous cases involving DCF, and one mother had come to the school with a sheriff’s deputy. The U.S. marshals had arrested someone (the name was redacted) at the school.

“Newpoint Academy has lots of issues and needs fixing,” Reese wrote.

Why No Action
Even with this new evidence, the investigation appeared to go nowhere. Superintendent Thomas didn’t tell the board. The records don’t indicate that he contacted the governor’s office about the grading issues before the governor presented in March to Newpoint Academy and Newpoint High checks for their outstanding performances for the 2013-14 school year.

The public records obtained from Bergosh gave some clues to why the Newpoint investigation may have stalled. His written notes contained a quote that appeared to be attributed to district investigator Gary Marsh at the end of January 2015:

“The next step is I need statements from teachers. Nobody has given me the go ahead.”

In a recap of his phone conversations and text messages with an unidentified whistleblower, Bergosh had notes where the whistleblower talked about how the investigations were handled by the District:

“They (Vickie Mathis and her assistant, Susan Rigby) are not happy that he shut them down. They worked for months on this stuff.”

“You rock. You are the only person, besides Vickie Mathis and Susan Rigby at Alt Ed., who thinks these issues were mishandled by the school. Their hands are tied now.”

“You need to call Pamela Anderson of DCF. Malcolm has gotten her to say the school is safe, even though the directors never reported teachers to them. DCF was outraged ‘til Malcolm got ahold of her. Politics at play.”

Bergosh asked the whistleblower if there was ever an investigation of the grade tampering.

“Never by Malcolm, last year or this year. Only recently by Alt. Ed. ladies, until Malcolm’s investigator told them to stop after they discovered three should not have graduated ‘cause they did not meet any requirements. The investigator said Malcolm said stop (pushing) it. Shut it down.”

The whistleblower was happy that the district was renewing the investigation into Newpoint and emailed six documents to Gary Marsh, the district investigator, according to Bergosh’s notes:

“Make sure the state gets copies of the six documents I emailed Mr. Marsh tonight. Four were about the grade issue. Someone came forward and sent them to me. I promised him I would not send them to anyone but him.”

Those emails were missing from public records given to Inweekly.

Scrambling for the Truth
Since the initial March 25 phone call, Bergosh has heard from several parents, teachers and students about problems at Newpoint. When interviewed by the media, Bergosh has made it clear that he doesn’t know if the allegations are true. That is for the state attorney to decide.

However, he is upset over the lack of communication from the Superintendent, especially in light of how Thomas has dealt with problems at other charter schools in the past.

“We had an unpleasant experience with a couple of charter schools in my time on the board,” Bergosh said. “What I found was the board was typically kept up-to-date on things, and they were given phone calls (about problems).”

He wrote on his blog, “The school board was not made aware of this or of any other significant investigation the district was conducting during any quarterly charter school meetings we have had in the last year—so why not?”

Bergosh said Thomas made mention of a few issues at Newpoint at the December workshop, but those appeared to be minor. Principal John Graham answered most of them.

“However, nothing about grade tampering, nothing about other onerous allegations about teachers, nothing about an investigation,” Bergosh said.

He said during the March 16, 2015 quarterly meeting on charter schools, Thomas and his staff mentioned no issues with Newpoint. Bergosh said, “Actually everyone was agreeing to allow the principals from all the charter schools to not attend the quarterly meetings going forward, unless the board or staff specifically requested them to be present.”

The school board member doesn’t know what Superintendent Thomas did or didn’t do in regards to the allegations at Newpoint, but he wants the truth to come out.

“This communication dissonance, the board’s lack of knowledge about specific issues at Newpoint, points to some significant dysfunction with respect to the way the board is kept abreast of allegations this explosive,” he said. “It’s particularly acute because the allegations were leveled multiple times throughout the month of May 2014—almost a full year ago!”

The State Attorney’s Office is investigating the allegations of grade tampering at Newpoint Academy and Newpoint High School.

On April 2, State Attorney Bill Eddins told WEAR TV that his office had opened the investigation “because of the seriousness of the allegations that it would be appropriate to have us look into the matter to determine if there’s any basis for criminal charges.” He said the charges could be theft or fraud, but also reminded viewers these were only allegations at that point.

For the past month, investigators have conducted interviews and reviewed documents.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille told Inweekly, “We are reviewing the information to determine what action should be taken, if any.”

Marcille said the final determination by the state attorney’s office was probably still weeks away.

Inweekly called Pamela Anderson with DCF about her investigation of Newpoint and whether Superintendent Thomas had interfered. She referred the reporter to the agency’s media contact.

DCF spokeswoman DaMonica Rivas said the agency’s investigation into child abuse, neglect or abandonment was closed. She said the operations manager for Escambia County said that DCF has had “a flawless relationship” with the school district.

The Newpoint administration has denied the allegations of grade tampering. In a press release issued in early April, Newpoint said, “These allegations are baseless, unfounded and utterly false.”

The school said that the insinuation that changing grades was the reason for the school’s “A” grade was also false and misinformed. According to the school, the state grading formula is based only on the student’s scores on state assessments and not related to classroom grades. “Therefore, there is no correlation between false allegations of grade tampering and the school’s success as an ‘A’ rated school.”

The school blamed the allegations on a “disgruntled former employee” whom the school said had been recruiting employees to spread negative messages to the district and others with the intent of getting the administrators fired.

The memo ended with: “We encourage the district and the community to make sure that they have all the facts before drawing conclusions based on any misinformation spread with the sole purpose of harming the school.”

Inweekly has evidence that contradicts the Newpoint statement. In a May 20, 2014 email obtained through the public record request, Principal John Graham told his faculty that school’s grade and their jobs were tied to the graduation rate.

Graham wrote, “Seniors last day will be Friday—some will need every minute of time before being cleared to walk. Please be responsive as the school grade and your spot are impacted by graduation rate.”

When Inweekly recently called the school, the paper found that Graham is no longer the principal at Newpoint. Jeff Garthwaite, a retired Escambia County School District principal, is Newpoint’s new principal. Graham resigned “about two or three weeks ago for a whole host of medical issues” that prevented him from managing the charter school.

Garthwaite said the Newpoint “hierarchy” is dealing with the Escambia County allegations.

It took a couple phone calls, but Inweekly did talk with Superintendent Malcolm Thomas.

On interfering with the investigation by DCF, he told Inweekly, “Interference? Interference? No. I’m not sure where you got that. There has been nothing but cooperation between the school district and DCF and the school district and state attorney’s office.”

Thomas said that he would need to make a judgment on the future of Newpoint based on the outcome of the investigations. He said, “I don’t want to interfere with what the state attorney is doing or what my own investigator is doing. I will have to make a judgment. I feel like I will have to make a judgment quick.”

He refused to pinpoint the most serious allegations, such as grade tampering.

“Obviously we now have a full-blown investigation, and we’ve brought the state attorney in,” Thomas said. “I will not be specific (about which allegations are most serious). I will let them do their work and make their recommendations.”

The paper has found out that it was Bergosh who brought the Newpoint allegations to the State Attorney’s Office, not the superintendent.

Inweekly pressed to find why nothing was done with the Newpoint allegations when they surfaced in May 2014. Thomas said the school district had been investigating Newpoint for months.

“We’ve gotten calls about them from the first day they were created,” he said. “Have we received complaints and allegations? Of course, we have. Every allegation is looked at. The first year was pretty problematic.”

On investigating Newpoint, he said, “I’ll be clear that we’ve looked at them over time on a number of fronts.”

What about keeping the school board informed of the issues at Newpoint? Thomas said, “Communication is a challenge. We have thousands of things happen in the course of a day. We’re charged with day-to-day operations. The school board is brought in on things that we can substantiate and document.”

Thomas said he has not contacted the governor’s office but has consulted with the Florida Department of Education on Newpoint’s charter.

He said, “If I could take immediate action, I would. But with a charter school, I don’t have that authority.”

Since the allegations became public, life inside Newpoint High and Newpoint Academy has been difficult. Some are glad the allegations are being investigated, but others wish the issues could have been handled internally. Students have been playing a game trying to guess the whistleblowers. A few teachers have resigned.

How do the whistleblowers feel?

One shared that she hoped the students would one day appreciate what she did and why.

“They don’t understand now,” she said. “But in the long run, they are going to look back and say, ‘Wow, she was the only one, out of 19 adults, that did the right thing.’”

Note: Duwayne Escobedo contributed to this article.