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Charlotte voucher school evicted after questions about its location and founder

Charlotte Leadership Academy evicted Teaching Achieving Students Academy, which was leasing a classroom, in the wake of questions published this week.
Ann Doss Helms
Charlotte Leadership Academy evicted Teaching Achieving Students Academy, which was leasing a classroom, in the wake of questions published this week.

A Charlotte private school that has received more than $400,000 in public money was evicted this week by another private school that had been leasing its space.

Ryan Saunders, co-founder of Charlotte Leadership Academy, said he terminated Fanisha Locke’s lease because he didn’t want questions about her to taint his school’s reputation. He said he learned from a WFAE story that Locke faces a felony charge of bringing contraband into an Alexander County detention center. That case has not gone to trial.

“Once we found out that it was an investigation we just basically terminated the lease,” Saunders said Wednesday.

The website for Teaching Achieving Students Academy was deactivated Monday, just hours after WFAE published the story describing its location inside Charlotte Leadership Academy. It had been updated just a couple of weeks earlier to list the North Graham Street address the two schools shared.

Saunders says his group leases space to various community groups, but he was not associated with Locke’s school.

“They’re just leasing a spot. There’s no association with leasing a spot,” he said.

Both schools participate in North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which was created to help low- and moderate-income families pay private-school tuition. Last year, Leadership Academy got $280,175 for 49 students, while Teaching Achieving Students got $126,444 for 22 students.

During the past school year, state legislators allocated almost $95 million for the scholarships. A bill that has the support of Republican legislators would open the vouchers to families at all income levels and build in steep annual funding increases, to more than half a billion dollars by 2031. It’s expected to be part of the budget that’s still in the works.

Teaching Achieving Students Academy first came under scrutiny when the North Carolina Justice Center, which opposes vouchers, found discrepancies between private school enrollment listed in one state database and the number of scholarship recipients listed in another. For the year that ended in 2022, Teaching Achieving Students was listed as having 13 students and 22 scholarship recipients. It’s gotten more than $400,000 in scholarships since 2014.

When WFAE looked for an explanation, another oddity turned up: Four possible addresses for the school were listed on state records or on the internet but the school didn’t seem to be at any of them. Those addresses led to a residential duplex, a closed Charlotte-Mecklenburg school, a building on a charter school campus…and Charlotte Leadership Academy. At the time Saunders said there was no other school sharing his building.

Recently a new state directory of private schools and the academy’s updated website listed the address on North Graham Street as the location for both Charlotte Leadership Academy and Teaching Achieving Students. Saunders’ co-administrator said Locke had been leasing a classroom there for three years.

Critics of the voucher program note that while school districts and charter schools receive performance ratings from the state and must release test scores to the public, private schools that get public money don’t have to tell the public anything about academics or finances.

The state agency that administers the scholarships looked into Teaching Achieving Students Academy after WFAE raised questions about its location. As of mid-July, that agency said the school’s documents were in order and it was cleared to keep getting public money in the coming school year.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.