Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday December 18th 2018

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Outtakes—Newpoint Nightmare

By Rick Outzen

In April 2015, Inweekly reported allegations of grade tampering and misuse of state funds at two Newpoint charters schools in Escambia County. Last week, Newpoint Education Partners founder Marcus May was convicted of one count of organized fraud and two counts of racketeering.

Missing from the news stories of May’s conviction was that Escambia Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas knew of problems at Newpoint a year before Inweekly broke the story and the State Attorney’s Office launched its investigation.

A Newpoint employee called Superintendent Thomas. She told him that 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.

The whistleblower saw Thomas as her last hope. When the superintendent’s office received the call in May 2014, Thomas was out. His administrative assistant, Cathy Irwin, took notes and read them back to the whistleblower to be sure she had the facts correct.

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

With graduation only a week away, the whistleblower 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.

However, the school superintendent didn’t intervene. The Newpoint schools finished their school years with no report to the Escambia County School Board of any problems. The Florida Department of Education gave Pensacola Newpoint High an “A” grade.

While the whistleblower was reaching out to the superintendent for help, two Newpoint students sent Thomas an email. 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.

Superintendent Thomas replied that he would take care of it, but nothing happened.

In March 2015, Gov. Rick Scott handed Newpoint High and Newpoint Academy checks for $11,392 and $15,861 respectively for their high performance. The award ceremony triggered the whistleblower to reach out to then-school board member Jeff Bergosh and Inweekly. Finally, the light was being shone on the problems at Newpoint. The Escambia County School Board a month later canceled the schools’ charters.

However, the Newpoint nightmare might have been avoided and tax dollars saved had Superintendent Thomas acted sooner.  A less political, appointed superintendent might have handled the charter schools differently.