An attorney representing dozens of parents with students at New Hope Academy in a federal lawsuit is making a last-ditch attempt to save the charter school.
In a letter sent to York City School District attorneys last week, Sean Summers warns the district it "is gambling with millions of dollars of taxpayer monies" and should consider a settlement agreement that would allow New Hope to stay open.
The letter cites the signed statements of two former members of the city district's school board, who contend the 2012 revocation of New Hope's charter was a foregone conclusion designed to recoup tuition payment money for the district.
According to affidavits from Beverly Atwater and the Rev. Aaron Willford, the board hired an attorney specifically for the purpose of closing New Hope so the district could recover tuition payments to the charter school — not because of academic or ethical problems at New Hope, as the board's adjudication reflected.
The attorney, Allison Petersen of Levin Legal Group of Huntingdon Valley, Bucks County, told the school board and administration "that she could guarantee that she could close New Hope," according to Atwater's statement.
Both affidavits cite discussions in private meetings about justifications for closing New Hope, including that the school's founder, Isiah Anderson, "makes too much money."
"Petersen said that she would discover reasons to close New Hope," according to Atwater's statement. "The Board and Administration, in my judgment, did not care what those reasons were because the only goal was to close New Hope."
Atwater said in her statement she "refused to participate" in the non-renewal process because it "was a lie."
"From my perspective, the New Hope non-renewal proceeding was a huge waste of tax dollars and time because the Board and Administration decided to close New Hope prior to even beginning the non-renewal proceedings," according to her statement.
In his statement, Willford said Petersen told the board members and administrators "that they could not publicly say anything about recovering monies for the School District."
Response: However, in a response to Summers' letter, an attorney representing the school district in the lawsuit pointed out Willford was not a member of the school board during the non-renewal process.
Willford served two separate stints on the board between 2010 and 2013. He was not a member of the board during the New Hope non-renewal proceedings in 2012.
Atwater was a member of the board but did not participate in the proceedings, which ended in July 2012 with a 5-0 vote to deny renewal of New Hope's charter.
Reached by phone Monday, school board President Margie Orr declined to comment on the affidavits from Atwater and Willford.
"I'm not going to make any statements about it now whatsoever," she said.
The Atwater and Willford affidavits "contain inaccurate information that falsely portrays the Board's actions in voting not to renew the charter" for New Hope, according to a statement from David Brown, one attorney representing the school district in the federal lawsuit.
"By presenting this information not only to the court but also to the press, the Plaintiffs seemingly seek to pressure the School District into a quick settlement of the case," the statement reads.
In April, Commonwealth Court affirmed a state Charter School Appeal Board decision that upheld the district's decision not to renew New Hope's charter. The school's last day in operation is June 10.
The letter from Brown also points out that New Hope's board of trustees has decided to dissolve New Hope's operation and the school's "academic performance has been dismal throughout its entire existence."
Summers, however, said the Commonwealth Court would not have "rubberstamped the district's adjudication" if the judges had seen the Atwater and Willford affidavits.
The lawsuit: Summers is representing nearly 60 New Hope parents and students in the lawsuit. They allege their constitutional rights were violated by the school board's decision to withdraw its support of the charter school during non-renewal proceedings in 2012.
Public court documents reflect Summers amended the allegations Monday.
Four defendants — superintendent Eric Holmes, former superintendent Deborah Wortham, former assistant superintendent Valerie Perry and board secretary Mindy Wantz — have been added to the list that already included three current members and two former members of the district's school board. Those include Orr, Sandie Walker, Michael Miller, James Morgan and Jane Hines — the five members who voted to deny New Hope's charter renewal.
The district is also named as a defendant.
Summers alleges in the amended complaint, for example, that district administrators formed a committee in early 2012 that met secretly to discuss reasons for closing New Hope. He alleges the district did not disclose those discussions to New Hope officials.
In its original version, the lawsuit claims the board conspired to close New Hope "to save the (district) from financial ruin."
The plaintiffs allege differential treatment of New Hope and other charter schools. For example, the school board approved a five-year renewal of Helen Thackston's charter earlier this year.
The school district's attorneys address that earlier allegation in reply briefs, saying the New Hope plaintiffs "do not attempt to explain why, if the Board wanted to recoup funds paid to charter schools, would the Board approve HTCS's renewal."
Likewise, the school district claims there "is simply no comparison between the schools' academic performance."
The school district also denies "the allegations that Petersen discussed nonrenewal with the board."
Petersen is one of the defense attorneys representing the board members in the lawsuit.
Keep it open?: Summers said his clients' preferred resolution has always been an agreement with the district that keeps New Hope open.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the district has "refused to even have that conversation," he said.
"In the event that YCSD (York City School District) elects to change course and discuss settlement, please let me know," Summers wrote in the letter. "The only realistic non-monetary relief available to plaintiffs is if YCSD allows New Hope Academy Charter School to stay open."
In an email, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education wrote, "Enforcement of the closure decision rests with the school district."
"The Charter Appeals Board and the court both affirmed York City School District's decision and they are final," Tim Eller wrote. "The Charter Appeals Board and the court have no further role to play at this point."
In his letter, Summers estimates damages could total between $5 million and $10 million for the New Hope parents and students if the judge rules in the plaintiffs' favor.
Summers also estimates plaintiff's attorney fees "will easily reach $1 million, especially if YCSD continues to object at every potential opportunity."
According to Pennsylvania's law governing charter schools, local school boards are required to annually assess "whether each charter school is meeting the goals of its charter and shall conduct a comprehensive review prior to granting a five year renewal of the charter."
Atwater's affidavit states the board did not perform the annual reviews. Willford said in his affidavit he was unaware of the requirement. State law specifically outlines reasons a school board can revoke or deny renewal of a charter. Those reasons include one or more material violations of its charter; failure to meet student performance standards; financial mismanagement; and violations of the charter school law.
Recouping money for the school district is not among the reasons.
— Reach Erin James at firstname.lastname@example.org.