Education

This company set up charter schools across North Carolina. Its leaders have left.

An organization that helped set up charter schools in North Carolina and Arizona has lost several of its leaders and cut back on its work, leading two N.C. schools to drop the organization’s services.

Now, those schools — which represent about 11,000 students — are wondering what to do next.

The turnover at TeamCFA has created uncertainty around the Charlotte-based nonprofit that provides financial, instructional and management support to 17 charter schools in North Carolina and four schools in Arizona.

“I want to clear up one misconception,” C. Bradley Miller, a member of TeamCFA’s board of directors, said in an email Friday to The News & Observer. “TeamCFA Foundation is not closing. We remain committed to supporting schools and their students and helping them achieve academic excellence.”

Miller said staff members still work at TeamCFA, but he didn’t provide any details. No one answered the phone at TeamCFA’s headquarters on a recent weekday and a voice mail from The News & Observer wasn’t returned.

The staff directory, email and telephone contact information on TeamCFA’s website was gone Monday afternoon.

Staff members who left and were contacted by The N&O would not say why they left.

Amid the uncertainty, two new schools that opened in August — Bonnie Cone Classical Academy in Huntersville and Community Public Charter School in Stanley — no longer plan to have TeamCFA run their day-to-day operations.

Bonnie Cone is in the process of dropping TeamCFA as its management company. Community Public Charter’s board signed an agreement last week ending its management contract with TeamCFA because the company said it could no longer fulfill the duties, according to Eddie McGinnis, a member of the board of the new Gaston County charter school.

“We didn’t panic when we got information that they’d go a different route,” McGinnis said. “We feel confident that we can make this work.”

TeamCFA also has worked with Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County, which was taken over by the state due to its low performance. TeamCFA is the “curriculum partner” of Achievement For All Children, the company hired to manage Southside as part of the Innovative School District program.

Former state legislator Tricia Cotham, president of Achievement For All Children, did not answer questions from The News & Observer about whether TeamCFA is still working with Southside Ashpole.

Cotham said that she’s not affiliated with TeamCFA. A spokesman for the Innovative School District said Wednesday that Achievement For All Children is an “affiliate organization of TeamCFA.”

TeamCFA founded by John Bryan

TeamCFA was launched by retired Oregon businessman John Bryan, who has used his wealth to promote school-choice causes and to give generously to Republican political candidates and GOP-run political action committees. He helped pass the law creating the Innovative School District, which allows low-performing schools to be turned over to outside groups, such as charter school operators.

TeamCFA helps schools with start-up costs and provides instructional support and money for technology, The News & Observer previously reported. TeamCFA schools must be trained in a curriculum called Core Knowledge. Some TeamCFA schools have a classical education theme, but it is not required.

Schools in the TeamCFA network include Carolina Charter Academy and Pine Springs Preparatory Academy in Wake County; Excelsior Classical Academy in Durham; and Aristotle Preparatory Academy, Unity Classical Charter School and Veritas Community School in Charlotte.

Kristen Stocking, one of the founding board members of Pine Springs Preparatory Academy in Holly Springs, said that the school has a strong parent base and is in good shape to continue operating on its own.

TJ Academy Panther logo
Patricia Kean’s art students at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Forest City worked on Panthers logos, which they shared with the team. Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy

The future of the organization changed after September 2017 when Bryan and the Challenge Foundation, which Bryan also had formed, discontinued funding for TeamCFA. According to an audit of TeamCFA, the group received as much as 95% of its annual revenue from Bryan and the Challenge Foundation.

TeamCFA got some outside donors to help offset the funding loss. The organization also sought to cut costs and suspended giving up to $300,000 in forgivable loans to schools, according to the audit.

TeamCFA had promoted that it didn’t collect fees from schools. But it began to run some charter schools in the network for a fee.

At most of the TeamCFA schools, the organization only provides money and support. In a few cases, TeamCFA is paid by the school to manage day-to-day operations.

“TeamCFA got into the charter management business only recently, and when they decided to go that route, they gave the existing schools in the network the option to be managed by them or not,” said Cynthia Gadoi, executive director of Excelsior Classical Academy. “We chose not to be.”

Community Public Charter, by contrast, initially agreed to pay TeamCFA up to 10% of its revenue to manage the school.

“We appreciate the help TeamCFA provided,” McGinnis said. “They helped to make some important contacts for us and put in the right direction.”

But over the last several months, much of the leadership of TeamCFA left the organization.

Tony Helton, who had been chief executive officer of both TeamCFA and Achievement For All Children, resigned both positions and started a new education consulting firm. Helton did not return The News & Observer’s telephone call and Facebook message requesting comment.

Jill Burleson went from being TeamCFA’s chief of staff to communications director for the committee hosting the Republican National Convention in Charlotte in 2020. Burleson said she’s no longer affiliated with TeamCFA and referred questions to Miller.

Gregg Sinders was listed as North Carolina director of TeamCFA but has recently been acting as a consultant helping non-TeamCFA charter schools. Sinders said Monday that he’s still doing work for TeamCFA but referred questions about whether he’s still state director to Miller.

Miller did not answer a question about what Sinders is now doing with TeamCFA.

The N&O’s emails to TeamCFA’s Arizona director bounced back as undeliverable.

Schools in the network say they’re not sure what will happen next.

“We’re just waiting for further information on the next steps,” said Jaime Stoops, director of Carolina Charter Academy, which opened in August near Fuquay-Varina.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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