Education

State board votes to close Durham charter high school after diploma errors

Posted March 2, 2017 12:22 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:39 p.m. EDT

— The State Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to close Kestrel Heights high school in Durham but will allow the charter school to continue serving students in grades K-8.

The decision came after the discovery that 40 percent of the school's students received diplomas they didn't earn in the past eight years.

"Of course, we're disappointed," Kestrel Heights' Executive Director Mark Tracy said after the board's vote. "(But) it will give us an opportunity to continue to strengthen our K-8 program, which is one of the best in the area, and provide a quality education and come back stronger than ever."

"To our parents and to our students, we are here for you," Tracy added.

Kestrel Heights must close its high school by July 1 but can apply to reopen it in three years. The school has 10 days to appeal the board's decision. If it does, a panel of state board members will review the request.

Thursday's vote appeared to be difficult for many members of the State Board of Education, including member Becky Taylor, who fought back tears as she made a motion to close the high school.

"This always is emotional," Taylor said. "This is certainly unfortunate, but it is necessary."

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who sits on the state board, supported closing the high school, calling it "the ultimate accountability."

"Nobody ever wants to do this. It's tragic when these kinds of things happen, but this is our responsibility as a board," he said. "I do hope Kestrel Heights will have the ability to reapply for a high school and do extremely well."

Forest also called for the state Office of Charter Schools to come up with "a bevy of options" for the state board to consider when handling potential problems at charter schools in the future.

"It's time to put together a list, if you will, of what our options are," he said. "There's a lot of confusion around this."

Some of that confusion was evident Thursday as board members questioned what options they had when deciding Kestrel Heights' fate.

State board Chairman Bill Cobey asked whether an outside management group could take over the charter school and said he wasn't sure who would need to initiate that process. A staffer with the Office of Charter Schools explained that a recommendation like that could come from the state board or the state's Charter Schools Advisory Board.

The advisory board previously discussed that option but ultimately decided to recommend that the state board close the high school.

State board Vice Chairman Buddy Collins, who said he "reluctantly" voted to close the high school, also questioned whether a takeover team could help the school.

"I don’t want to minimize what's happened at Kestrel Heights," he said, "but I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that there's 350 students there who didn’t have anything to do with this."

If the same diploma problems happened at a traditional public school, "that school would not be closed, and those students would not be displaced," Collins said.

Kestrel Heights' new principal first discovered the diploma problem last summer. School leaders investigated further in December and found that 160 of 399 students received diplomas in the past eight years without earning all of the proper credits.

The problems stemmed from "systematic errors" by a counselor and two principals, according to school officials, who said the staffers are no longer employed. The Durham County District Attorney’s Office is working to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted.