Eagle Arts principals resign as charter school withholds teachers’ pay

Eagle Arts Academy’s two principals resigned Monday and several teachers threatened to quit after the Wellington charter school withheld paychecks last week and the school revealed that employees will not be paid for at least another week.

In a raucous board meeting on the school’s campus, Gregory Blount, the school’s executive director and founder, revealed that the financially struggling school has little money in the bank and that the school has been operating on short-term loans since November.

The tumult raised fears that the 425-student school might be forced to close later this month if the school can’t persuade enough teachers to continue working.

RELATED: District moves to close troubled Wellington charter school

Accusing Blount of misleading the staff, the school’s two principals resigned during Monday’s board meeting, and the board chairman and the school’s special-education coordinator threatened to quit as well if Blount wasn’t removed from his position. Several other staffers also threatened to resign.

“I can no longer support something that I feel is an absolute charade,” board Chairman Tim Quinn said.

Blount has been criticized for steering more than $150,000 of school money into his own companies since the school opened in 2014. In 2016, he was forced to repay $46,000 after The Palm Beach Post revealed that the school gave him the money in the guise of a loan.

The proposal to oust Blount Monday was dropped after other board members defended Blount as the school’s visionary leader and founder.

In an emotional ending to the meeting, the two principals and several staff members walked out in protest after a revelation that, amid the school’s financial struggles, Blount had continued steering thousands of dollars of school money to his own private company.

The Palm Beach County School Board voted last month to close the school in June unless it stabilizes its finances by the end of the school year.

But if too many of the school’s roughly 60 teachers and staff members resign, the school district might be forced to close the school sooner, said Jim Pegg, director of the school district’s charter school department.

“If they don’t pay their employees, they are more than likely going to lose their employees,” Pegg said.

The K-8 school, on a 13-acre campus in Wellington, once had more than 700 students, but its enrollment has fallen this year to about 425.

The falling enrollment has cut the amount of money the school receives from the state, making it impossible for the school to balance its books, school leaders say.

RELATED: Eagle Arts charter in chaos: Are kids being educated?

‘Can’t live without a roof over my head’

Eagle Arts is scheduled to receive its next monthly installment of state money next week, and board members vowed to see that teachers and staff receive last week’s paycheck then.

But by the end of next week another paycheck will be due, and school leaders were unable to say when the staff would receive that paycheck. The school also is required to make more loan payments to its short-term lender.

Several teachers told the board, which has five members, of the hardships they will face if they have to wait another week to receive their paychecks. One teacher cried as she said her landlord had already threatened to evict her if she doesn’t pay rent this week.

“What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?” the teacher said. “I can’t live without a roof over my head.”

Some board members said that they understood the teachers’ frustrations but urged them to keep working until next week, saying that if they resign the school likely will be forced to close.

Blount said he was working to recruit more students to the school and also had convinced some acquaintances to donate money to the school to help balance its books. But he admitted that those prospects would bring no immediate relief.

Part of the staff’s anger seemed to be rooted in what they called a lack of transparency by Blount. On Thursday, Blount had told staff via email that the paychecks would only be delayed a day. He blamed the delay on “the fact that the end of the month came so quickly” and assured them that their checks would be ready by Monday.

But on Monday, Blount was forced to admit that paychecks would not be forthcoming for more than a week.

READ: Investigation: Founder cashed in on Wellington’s Eagle Arts charter

Learning that they had no way to get paychecks to school employees before next week, school leaders said they were disgusted with Blount’s handling of the school’s financial woes and that they could not continue on.

‘Quit the finger-pointing’

The school’s middle-school principal, Paul Copeland, announced his resignation during the meeting. He said he believed in the school’s vision but criticized Blount for repeatedly blaming others for the school’s problems.

Blount routinely attributes the school’s misfortunes to the school district and The Post, which exposed many of Blount’s personal financial dealings with the school and documented some of the tumult at the school as Blount clashed with subordinates.

“We’ve got to quit the finger-pointing and we’ve got to quit putting off the blame on other people,” Copeland said. “We just have to be honest and upfront.”

The elementary-school principal, Stacey Taggart, said in the meeting she would also resign and said she was reluctant to ask school staff to keep working without pay.

“I’m not comfortable asking teachers to stay until the 12th without knowing all the information,” she said.

She then revealed that she had learned that, in the weeks before the school ran out of money to make payroll, Blount has directed a payment to his private company, Element Management Group, purportedly for “brand licensing” services.

After revealing that news, Taggart and Copeland walked out of the meeting, and several teachers and staff followed suit.

Facing questions from angry teachers who remained, Blount admitted to steering the money to his company but said it was money owed for February, not March. He also said that the school might be able to cobble together enough money to give staffers a few hundred dollars later this week.

As the meeting adjourned a moment later, board member Sheri Klostermeyer implored the remaining teachers and staff to return to campus Tuesday. But she conceded many might not be back.

“I can see it in your faces that that was it for a lot of you,” she said.

Staff writer Kristina Webb contributed to this story.

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