Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday December 12th 2018

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The Price of Whistleblowing

By Rick Outzen

In April 2015, Inweekly reported that Newpoint High, one of Escambia County’s high-performing charter schools, had been accused of fixing grades, failing to report possible child abuse to state authorities and mishandling funds.

According to documents received by Inweekly, the school district had been notified of the problems a year earlier, but Superintendent Malcolm Thomas did not inform the school board of the allegations. On March 16, 2015, Gov. Rick Scott handed Newpoint High and its middle school, Newpoint Academy, checks for $11,392 and $15,861, respectively, for their high performance during the 2013-14 school year.

After the check presentations, the allegations came to light when a whistleblower contacted School Board member Jeff Bergosh. The whistleblower sent Bergosh a 22-page report that detailed grade tampering and the use of unqualified teachers and substitutes who stole school funds, watched porn in their classrooms and inappropriately touched and interacted with the students.

State Attorney Bill Eddins opened an investigation. Last year, Marcus May, the founder and owner of the Newpoint Education Partners charter schools in Escambia and six other Florida counties, and Steven Kunkemoeller, owner of School Warehouse, Inc. and Red Ignition, Inc., were charged with racketeering and organized fraud in connection with fraudulent schemes involving public charter schools.

Last month, Kunkemoeller was found guilty. May is awaiting trial for his alleged role in the schemes.

When we reported on the allegations three years ago, Inweekly agreed to protect the identity of the whistleblower, Letha Morris, but Newpoint officials suspected their office manager was the leak and began pressuring her.

“Carla Lovett (NEP vice president) made it her life’s mission to call me a disgruntled former employee,” said Morris. “I was never disgruntled.  My job ethic, my duties, none of that wavered, none of that changed. But she constantly said that the allegations (about the grade tampering and finances) were false; they were rumors; none of those things had happened.”

Morris knew what was going on because she had worked for Newpoint for three years and had run the front office. She enrolled the students for all three schools and knew the kids, their parents and teachers.

As the improprieties became more apparent, Morris went to Escambia School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas and district officials. She asked four teachers to share what they knew about grade tampering.

“I went individually to each one, and I said we all know what’s going on and if we don’t come forward and put a stop to it, you know, something’s going to happen,” shared Morris. “Something’s going to happen to a teacher; something’s going to happen to a student. We’re going to get sued.”

Three of the teachers kept paper grade books. Morris knew that grade books differed from what had been entered into the computer. She warned them that they might lose their teaching certificates if they didn’t come forward.

“They all turned me down, and I was really surprised, really surprised,” she told Inweekly.  A couple of days later, the school director told his Newpoint bosses that Morris was the whistleblower. She asked a teacher why she was suspected to be the leak and was told that she was the only one with character.

When Newpoint officials came down, they held closed meetings with the middle and high school faculty. She said, “The teachers were told if we all stick together and sing the same song, we’ll be able to get rid of Letha, and all of our problems would go away.”

The pressure began to mount on Newpoint and the teachers as the Department of Children and Families, Health Department and School District began to visit the campus and ask questions. Some of the teachers and students started ostracizing Morris’ daughter, who was a junior.

Her math teacher, Chris Fowler, told his math class the investigation was Morris and her daughter’s fault. Fowler eventually resigned and later was arrested for test tampering.

After the teacher singled out the junior, no one spoke to Morris’ daughter. She said, “She would go into the lunch room and sit down, and everyone would get up and leave the table. She was called names. She was afraid to go to the bathroom by herself. All of her friends, who had been her friends since 8th grade, all abandoned her. No one would sit by her in the classroom.”

The assistant director of the school, Alyssa Wilson, forbid her daughter from talking to teachers.  If she had any questions, she was instructed to send the query to the teacher in an email.

When the science teacher resigned, Newpoint hired a replacement that didn’t know chemistry. Morris’ daughter would stay up until 2 a.m. watching tutorials to teach herself science.

“She would be in tears,” shared Morris.  “When I asked why she was up, she would say, ‘Mommy, I’m earning high school credits. I have to graduate on time. Our science teacher quit.’”

She continued, “My daughter had no math teacher, no science teacher and she was trying to maintain a straight-A average so that she would graduate valedictorian.  She was still trying to keep her grades up, with no friends, no help, and could only email the teachers.”

After Inweekly reported on the improprieties at the Newpoint schools and State Attorney Bill Eddins opened an investigation, Superintendent Thomas renewed the district’s investigation into the charter schools. On May 19, 2005, the Escambia County School Board voted to cancel the charters for the middle and high schools. On June 4, 2015, Newpoint closed all three schools, leaving the teachers without their final paychecks.

Morris told Inweekly she is aggravated about the fallout of the investigations because she believes the district could have stepped in sooner and possibly found a new management company to run them. She’s upset that no one ever got in trouble for anything other than the money issues.

Her daughter struggled her senior year, but her parents paid for tutoring to help her catch up on her math. She managed to graduate high school with a 4.26 GPA.

Morris is very proud of her daughter and feels some guilt about what she endured. Some days at Newpoint were too difficult for her daughter to bear.

She would tell her mother, “If I do it today, something bad’s going to happen. They stare at me. They snicker. They point and laugh. They talk behind my back. I walk down the hallway, and I hear the word, ‘bitch.’ And all they keep seeing is that you are trying to close this school down.”

Fighting back tears, Morris said, “I don’t understand why the kids were so mean, you know? No one was teaching her. She was teaching herself. She didn’t give up. Very, very, very strong girl.”

Maybe naively, Morris thought the school could be saved.

“We needed to replace a couple of bad apple teachers, and we needed to get a better director,” she said. “I had no idea about the embezzlement and all that was going on.”

Unfortunately, teaching the students appears not to have been the mission of Newpoint Education Partners.