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State audit shows multiple concerns at York City's Thackston Charter
(Editor's note: This story was originally published June 11, 2015.)
A state audit on a York City charter school revealed multiple areas of concern, including a general lack of accountability and transparency as well as an insufficient number of certified teachers and a failure to keep proper financial and health records.
The routine audit, which reviewed Helen Thackston Charter School operations from 2010 to 2013, also exposed a potential ethics violation, concerns about reimbursements and double-billing for tuition reimbursements from local school districts, said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
"In the Thackston charter school's case, there is no way to account for every dollar, or to know if the school operated as intended, because a breakdown of internal controls," DePasquale said. "The lack of documentation makes it nearly impossible to draw any sound conclusion."
DePasquale emphasized that this was not only a local issue, but reimbursements are also coming from the state's Department of Education.
"Those are all of our tax dollars..." he said. "We owe it to parents, taxpayers, and especially the students to make sure that every education dollar is focused on improving learning opportunities."
School officials did not return calls for comment.
Compliance: The 63-page report on the charter school outlines 12 findings, two observations and 52 recommendations for improvement.
"The number of findings and recommendations indicates a systemic breakdown in accountability, effectiveness and transparency," DePasquale said. "Our audit shows not only a clear need for changes within this charter school, but for legislative reforms of the Charter School Laws and the Department of Education's regulations, guidelines and policies."
The school's new leadership has been very cooperative, DePasquale said.
"I believe that it was just an administration in over their and head, and most of the evidence points to that," he said.
Based on responses from school officials included in the report, DePasquale said he's hopeful there will be noticeable improvement when he audits again in two years.
"They agreed with our recommendations and have outlined plans to come into compliance," he said. "Some of the changes are already under way."
Teachers: Charter schools, which are held to different standards than traditional schools, are required to make sure at least 75 percent of their staff members are certified.
Thackston reported that 100 percent of its staff was certified, when in reality, the school employed fewer certified teachers than required, the audit showed.
For the three years contained in the audit, the percentage of certified staff ranged from 63 percent to 71 percent. "I have yet to come up with a logical explanation for that," DePasquale said. "It could only mean one of two things: you're making up a number because you couldn't be bothered to figure it out, which is unacceptable, or you're lying about it."
Health: The charter school was also being reimbursed for a certified nurse that it did not employ, the audit showed.
Instead of being reimbursed at about $1 per student, the school - because it reported having a certified nurse on staff - was receiving about $7 per student from the Department of Health, DePasquale said.
The school also failed to provide mandated health screenings, and mandated dental services were not documented, according to the audit.
Academics: The charter school serves students from eight different districts: City of York, Central York, Dallastown, Donegal, Northeastern, West York Area, York Suburban and Dover Area school districts.
According to the Department of Education's School Performance Profile, the charter's school scores are declining. The school's score dropped from 57.5 percent in 2012-13 to 45.8 percent in 2013-14, ranking it lower than six of the seven public schools in the city of York, DePasquale said.
"The quality of the administration matters," he said. "When there is a lack of quality leadership at the top and a lot of turnover, it will affect the quality of the education."
To view the report in full, visit www.PaAuditor.gov.