Charter school board members file lawsuit claiming ‘abuse of power’ at Collier County charter school

Reporter: Peter Fleischer Writer: Matthew Seaver
Mason Classical Academy
Mason Classical Academy in Collier County. (Credit: WINK News)

A Southwest Florida charter school is fighting back against what it calls years of “abuse of power.” Two school board members filed a lawsuit against 11 separate parties, including the wife of a prominent elected official.

Kelly Lichter and David Bolduc are board members at Mason Classical Academy in Collier County.

They paint the picture of an entire system working to take MCA away from them, pointing fingers at former employees, a nonprofit that helps determine Florida’s educational curriculum, and Erika Donalds, a former MCA board member and the wife of Congressman Byron Donalds.

Mason Classical Academy describes itself as “a traditional education with a constant view towards developing exceptional American citizens.”

MCA ranked as the second-best school in Collier County according to grades posted by the Florida Department of Education a few months ago.

In a 274-page complaint filed earlier this month, Lichter and Bolduc say problems began in May of 2016. They claim that’s when board vice president Byron Donalds began working with former board member Matthew Mathias to “take over” the charter school.

According to the lawsuit, Congressman Donalds was a member of the governing board when the school first opened in 2014, and his wife Erika was an advisory board member.

Neither is currently involved with the school.

WINK News has reported on MCA in the past. In 2019, Collier County Public Schools released a report that accused MCA of Sunshine Law violations and financial mismanagement. The school responded by hiring an independent law firm, which published its report, claiming MCA had not committed wrongdoing.

The two sides eventually agreed on a corrective action plan. As a result, MCA expanded its school board and hired a new principal.

Issues continued, though. The new lawsuit lays out years’ worth of emails, text messages and social media posts. It’s a recreation of events that Lichter and Bolduc say show an effort to take away control at the high-performing charter.

It also cites Hillsdale College, a Michigan nonprofit whose charter school initiative works with the state to create educational programs and charter schools across Florida.

The suit claims Hillsdale helped launch MCA starting in 2013, but the two sides ended their relationship over the summer of 2019. It also states that Hillsdale officials worked “hand in hand” with other defendants “against MCA’s best interests.”

In total, the suit lays out 18 counts, including conspiracy, racketeering, and libel. It also demands damages in an amount to be established at trial. Once the defendants are served, they have 21 days to respond to the lawsuit.

WINK News attempted to reach out to every defendant named in this lawsuit, including Byron and Erika Donalds.

Erika Donalds spoke with WINK News, saying: “This is a frivolous lawsuit that is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Lichter and MCA are actively involved in several other lawsuits with some of the defendants in this case, although none have been resolved yet.

WINK News also reached out to Lichter and Bolduc. Their attorney released the following statement:

Mason Classical Academy’s (“MCA”) students, staff, and leadership abide by the same Pillars of Virtue—among them Honesty, Integrity, and Courage. We teach our students to always do what is right despite fear, hardship, and opposition and to defend their rights and the rights of others regardless of the circumstances or consequences. These lessons are meaningless if MCA does not stand up for itself and the MCA family against people with personal agendas who have abused their power and bullied MCA for years without any consequences. Enough is enough. This lawsuit will expose the truth about the hostile takeover and put a stop to the relentless harassment Collier County’s highest performing public school has endured over the past several years. Our students and the citizens of Collier County are entitled to nothing less.

Congressman Donalds also responded to WINK News’s request for comment, saying:

This lawsuit against my wife, Erika Donalds, is nothing more than a frivolous vendetta by a self-serving former colleague looking to taint my wife’s good name and many accomplishments in the community. Mrs. Lichter should answer why she thinks it’s appropriate to use taxpayer dollars to fund another one of her baseless legal antics. As a candidate for the local School Board, children and parents deserve better than a woman who puts personal animosity over the priorities of families looking to better than children’s education.

WINK News has not heard back from anyone else involved in the lawsuit.

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