School Choice & Charters

Lead NAEP Official Faces Scrutiny Over Improper Spending Alleged at N.C. Charter School

By Mark Lieberman — December 15, 2023 | Updated: December 17, 2023 7 min read
Peggy Carr, Commissioner of the National Center for Education, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press about the National Assessment of Education Process on Oct. 21, 2022, in Washington.
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Updated: A statement from the governing board of Children’s Village Academy was added on the evening of Dec. 15. Additional details on the school’s financial history and clarification on the nature of auditors’ expectations for the school were added on the evening of Dec. 17.

The head of the federal agency that runs nationwide academic assessments is facing scrutiny from state education officials in North Carolina over allegations of improper spending related to her role as vice chair of the board for a charter school launched by her late mother.

Peggy Carr was appointed by President Joe Biden in 2021 to serve as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the assessment and data collection arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

She’s also served for more than two decades on the board for Children’s Village Academy, a K-8 charter school that enrolls 155 students in rural Kinston, N.C. Peggy Carr’s mother, Anna Bell Carr, founded the school in 1997. Peggy Carr’s sister Gloria currently serves as an administrator there.

Two reports published Dec. 11 by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction requested that the school repay thousands of dollars for expenses that appear to violate state or federal spending guidelines.

Another report published earlier this month by the state education department’s office of federal programs raised similar questions about $287,000 spent from a federal grant that supports afterschool programs.

The expenses in question include:

  • furniture totaling $5,000 outside the scope of approved educational expenses;
  • eight months of utility bills of $3,200 for a property the school didn’t always have a contract to occupy and was also used by other tenants; and
  • costs for school supplies and technology tools totaling $5,018 incurred by a contractor who wasn’t hired to make those purchases and didn’t produce receipts showing they actually bought those items.

Auditors flagged the last item on that list as “consistent with indicators of fraud, waste, or abuse.”

The Department of Public Instruction also questioned an arrangement through which Carr loaned the school $188,000 in 2008 and is on track to be owed $155,000 in interest.

The education department’s monitoring and compliance division said Carr allowed the school to delay its repayment, but that it never updated the loan documentation or fully recorded the loan in its financial statements.

At its current repayment pace, the department calculated that the school would eventually owe $155,000 in interest to Peggy Carr, its board’s vice chair, who took out personal loans to make the initial loan 15 years ago.

U.S. Education Department is ‘looking into this matter’

Carr wasn’t available for an interview in time for publication, according to her spokesperson, Erick Mullen. Mullen, however, shared a statement from Carr in which she says the state audit is “not accurate.”

Carr said she and her husband have made significant monetary contributions to the school, incurred losses after the school struggled to pay back loans, and even tapped into her retirement account and took out a loan on her home to keep the school financially afloat.

“Everything I have done for and with the school has been in the best interest of the school and its students,” Carr wrote. “Rather than seek personal gain, in fact, I did this at a personal financial loss. My reward was seeing the academic improvement of the students.”

Carr said she plans to forgive any remaining debts the school owes her, and to work with state agencies to resolve and clarify discrepancies.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said the federal agency “is looking into this matter and does not comment on personnel matters.”

In a statement Friday evening, Dec. 15, the school’s governing board vowed to improve its internal accounting processes but denied that the Carr family had engaged in “fraud, self-dealing, or other malicious or self-interested motive.”

“It is believed that the complaints were filed by a disgruntled ex-employee of the school who is known to have boasted that he would get the school closed down,” the statement says. The probe began after the state education department and state auditor’s office received allegations of financial impropriety at the school.

The board also took issue with the state report, arguing that it went beyond the scope of the allegations that prompted the review.

“None of the allegations were substantively upheld by DPI, officials; yet their report is silent in that regard,” the board wrote.

The school also replied in detail to the audit findings. In some cases, the school agreed to develop more rigorous processes for documenting expenses.

But the school’s response also says the report is “excessively detrimental, one-sided, and fails to adequately exonerate the school and its individuals where that is due.” School officials also said the state’s request for a detailed inventory of the school’s furniture was extreme and unreasonable.

Jessica Jones, the school’s K-8 executive director and principal, declined to comment Friday when a reporter for Education Week contacted her. Wilma Troublefield, chair of the CVA board, didn’t respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Technology center’s utility and furniture costs questioned

The reports detail a series of instances when the school apparently failed to adequately ensure that expenses were in line with spending guidelines, or that the exact circumstances of spending were clearly documented.

Carr, her mother, and one of Carr’s sisters bought the school’s main campus from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh in 1991, Lenoir County property records show, six years before the school began.

Right across the street lies the technology center building, which Peggy Carr and three of her sisters purchased in 2006, according to public records.

Carr family members purchased buildings for the school because charter schools in North Carolina weren’t permitted to use government funds to buy property, Peggy Carr wrote in her statement.

Several findings center on the technology center.

According to the audit, the school paid utility bills for the property between June 2022 and February 2023. The school, however, only had a contract to use one floor of the technology center building for two months of that time. The building was partially occupied by other tenants, including a U-Haul truck rental business.

Auditors said the school should return more than $3,000 in state education funds spent on utilities. They also recommended the school request reimbursement from Peggy Carr, as a building owner, to cover that amount. And they expect the school to look back at utility bills before and after the scrutinized period to identify any other improper spending.

Also at issue in the technology center is a set of furniture items paid for with $5,000 in funds from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant program. The audit says the items—including a dining room table, chairs, pillows, lamps, wall art, and “decorative accessories, including colorful cows, book boxes, and flowers"—aren’t allowable expenses for the grant because they don’t sufficiently contribute to learning and were used primarily during periods when the school didn’t have a contract to occupy the building.

The audit notes that the school’s response mentions that students sat and worked on their laptops at the dining room table in question.

The report also points to numerous expenses that appear questionable due to a lack of documentation. For instance, in December 2022 the school purchased four $500 Visa gift cards and described the expense as “maintenance” with no further details.

In responding to the audit, the school said it purchased the gift cards for the school’s maintenance staff and finance officer.

The school has long had financial troubles

Children’s Village Academy was founded in 1997 by Anna Bell Carr, who died in 2022 at the age of 92, according to a funeral home announcement.

The Children’s Village Academy website says the school offers “private school education for a public school price—free.” It has dealt with financial woes throughout its existence, with annual tax filings showing the school ran deficits in six different years between 2011 and 2022. North Carolina’s education department recommended revoking its charter in 2013.

The school’s future continues to be on shaky ground. The latest audit findings are “a huge part of the decision” over whether to renew the school’s charter next year, John Eldridge, vice chair of the North Carolina Charter Schools Review Board, told the Raleigh News & Observer.

Representatives for the charter board didn’t answer Education Week’s requests for comment in time for publication.

Carr has had a long career in education

Peggy Carr’s mother pushed for her and her siblings to be among the first to integrate schools in her eastern North Carolina community, according to online biographies.

Peggy Carr went on to become the first in her family to obtain a Ph.D., and the first Black woman to serve in an appointed leadership role at the National Center for Education Statistics, where she’s worked since 1993.

Carr’s current duties include overseeing the rollout of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the annual math and reading assessment also known as the Nation’s Report Card. She’s also in charge of the department’s data monitoring, which includes a suite of surveys of K-12 schools that provide data that inform policy decisions, including funding.

In a 2021 press release announcing her appointment to the top role at NCES, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called her a “dedicated public servant.”

As of Dec. 15, Carr was still listed on the charter school’s website as vice chair of the board.

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