By Lindsay Wagner

Fayetteville’s Village Christian Academy, a private school newly participating in the state’s taxpayer-funded Opportunity Scholarships Program, found itself embroiled in scandal this month when the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association determined the private school’s football program to be in violation of its rule prohibiting the recruitment of student athletes and offering them “impermissible benefits.”

The NCISAA’s investigation into Village Christian was first reported by HighSchoolOT.com.

Families of two football players for the private school, which received $126,000 in taxpayer-funded school voucher funds for the first time this academic year, claim that their sons were recruited and offered free tuition at Village Christian, where they enrolled their sons, Isaiah Henderson and Geo Cannon, to attend school and play football last fall after leaving Raleigh’s Athens Drive High School at the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year.

In a video published online, the football team’s head coach, Emerson Martin, explained to the parents of football player Isaiah Henderson how some coach stipends would be pooled together in order to have some of the player’s tuition payments covered.

Despite these alleged promises, the two families claim they were ultimately asked to make tuition payments to the school, with the bill coming due after its state championship football win in November 2018. When the families couldn’t pay, the students were not allowed to continue attending classes.

The players, Isaiah Henderson and Geo Cannon, were two of several high school football players that were recruited from Raleigh area schools to play at Village Christian in Fayetteville, according to highschoolot.com. Families say Coach Martin drove players in a van from Raleigh to Fayetteville each school day to attend classes and play football.

Coach Martin denies all allegations that he made promises of free tuition to families in exchange for coming to Village Christian Academy.

Public funds flow to another private school caught up in a sports scandal

The publicly-funded school voucher program, known formally as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, was conceived and enacted by state lawmakers in 2013 as a means for low-income families to tap into public dollars and use them to pay for private school tuition, ostensibly as a means toward accessing better educational opportunities.

While the program has operated since the 2014-15 school year, Village Christian began participating in it for the first time in 2018, after unsuccessfully registering for the program in 2017 due to having missed the deadline for registration, according to the NC State Education Assistance Authority.

Thirty students at Village Christian have successfully received school voucher funds this year that were electronically transmitted directly to the school from the state, totaling $126,000 in public dollars. Eighty-five families applied, according to public records.

Students must meet eligibility requirements in order to receive vouchers that can then be used to pay for private school tuition. First year recipients must have been attending a public school in the prior year, and their household income cannot exceed 133 percent of the amount required for the student to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

Football player Isaiah Henderson’s father, Dirul Henderson, told the Public School Forum that he learned about the Opportunity Scholarship Program through one of Village Christian’s assistant football coaches, Keith McCrimmon, last spring, as they were preparing to transfer to Village Christian.

Henderson said he then applied on behalf of his son in the spring of 2018 for an Opportunity Scholarship, but he learned that his application was submitted too late — the state notified him that funds for the voucher program for the 2018-19 school year had already been exhausted. While Henderson claims that he was offered free tuition in exchange for his son to play football at Village Christian, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, he said, was never portrayed as the vehicle toward a free ride at the school.

McCrimmon, who in addition to serving as an assistant coach also had a son at Athens Drive High School last year, told the Forum he brought his son down to play football for Village Christian in the fall of 2018 and said he learned about the Opportunity Scholarship Program from Coach Martin. McCrimmon said he also applied for a school voucher for his son last spring, but he was too late as well and received a denial letter from the state.

McCrimmon said the voucher program was never promoted by Martin as a pathway toward free tuition for his son, and that he always planned to pay his son’s tuition to Village Christian. He also said he never promised any other players or their families that their tuition would be covered–but he did spread the word about the state-funded Opportunity Scholarships Program.

“We were hopeful that we would get the grant, and [Martin] told us we could apply for the scholarship, but he never said we would get it,” said McCrimmon. “When we told him we missed the deadline, there was nothing he could do about it.”

McCrimmon said he believes that other football players on the team did receive school vouchers. The school voucher statute prohibits the state agency overseeing the program from sharing information that would identify who receives Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools.

Emerson Martin, a former NFL football player, was hired by Village Christian in 2017 to coach their football team. Martin and his wife, Keschia, also run a private business called Players2Pros, which offers football training and exposure for student-athletes and helps them find college scholarships.

Reached by phone, Martin said he was aware of the Opportunity Scholarships Program and that some of his student-athletes benefited from it, but he never used the program as a recruitment tool.

More than one elite sports program embroiled in scandal and subsidized by the public

Village Christian isn’t the first private school in Fayetteville receiving public dollars to find itself mired in scandal.

The basketball coach at Trinity Christian School, which houses an elite basketball program that has graduated NBA player Dennis Smith Jr. and Duke basketball player Joey Baker, pleaded guilty in 2017 to embezzling hundreds of thousands of tax withholding dollars he collected over eight years from the school’s employees.

That coach, Heath Vandevender, served his prison sentence on weekends while continuing to coach basketball at the school. Trinity Christian has received more than $3 million public dollars since 2014, when the school voucher program began disbursing public funds. This academic year the school eclipsed the $1 million mark in state funds received. The school receives more Opportunity Scholarship funding than any other private institution in the state of North Carolina.

Despite receiving such a large sum of public dollars, there’s nothing in the law that prevents a voucher school from continuing to employ a convicted felon.

And while its basketball program is highly regarded, it’s impossible to know how Trinity Christian–or Village Christian, for that matter–would stack up in any kind of state ranking system when it comes to academics. That’s because North Carolina doesn’t require private schools receiving taxpayer dollars to publicize academic outcomes that are comparable across private schools or to their public school counterparts.

Despite the fact that the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is on track to disburse more than $145 million taxpayer dollars annually by 2026, lawmakers continue to avoid enacting oversight measures that would do more to assure the public those dollars are in fact being spent on superior educational options for low-income students–despite several bills having been introduced over the years that have endeavored to improve transparency and accountability for the program.

As for Village Christian, the NCISAA has required the school to forfeit all of its football wins in 2017 and 2018, including this year’s state championship victory, following its investigation.

In a statement, the association said it has also placed the school on probation for the next two years; however, it’s unclear what that means with regard to the future of its other sports programs, including its elite basketball program, which was ranked 27th among all schools in North Carolina this year, public and private, according to MaxPreps.com.

Since the NCISAA’s ruling, Village Christian has terminated Coach Martin’s employment.

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