- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s public school board on Monday took the rare step of asking a prosecutor to investigate whether a Durham charter school’s employees committed crimes after more than 50 students graduated without earning their diplomas.

The State Board of Education approved the move unanimously, saying they wanted a look into whether taxpayer money was misspent, documents falsified or fraud committed at Kestrel Heights School. Authorities said students got diplomas without fulfilling graduation requirements in at least the past three years.

“This is a much bigger ball of wax than I had even imagined,” state school board member Patricia Willoughby said. “This is a lot of students and a lot of state tax dollars.”

Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

Charter schools are public schools that operate with fewer rules than traditional taxpayer-funded schools. Kestrel Heights’s guidance counselor and principal left this summer as the problem was uncovered, according to officials. They have not been identified.

Kestrel Heights also was placed on the highest level of financial oversight by state charter school officials. The state authorization for the kindergarten-through-12th grade school founded in 1998 to continue operating runs out in June. Based on its academic record, a state advisory board had recommended the school for another 10-year operating charter, but reversed itself after learning about the problem last week.

Kestrel Heights leaders are doing everything they can to cooperate with state officials after finding and reporting the problem, said Stephon Bowens, the school’s attorney. Kestrel Heights executive director Mark Tracy did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Students already identified as falling short of graduation requirements were missing courses in math, English, science, history and even physical education, said Dave Machado, executive director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools.

“It’s really across the board as far as the type of classes and the year,” he said.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio.

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Information from: The News & Observer, https://www.newsobserver.com


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