York City district starts process to revoke Helen Thackston charter

Junior Gonzalez

The York City school board will consider a resolution to revoke the charter for the Helen Thackston Charter School.

Helen Thackston Charter School, 625 E. Philadelphia St., York. Amanda J. Cain photo

The motion to approve the resolution, which was introduced during a special meeting Monday evening, will be on the agenda for the school board’s next voting meeting on June 21.

Assuming the resolution passes, the York City School District will begin revocation hearings in August.

"From the information that we have gathered over the last few months, as well as information that was discussed (in February), we ask that the board take steps to revoke the charter of the Helen Thackston Charter School," Superintendent Eric Holmes said at Monday's meeting.

Thackston has been under scrutiny for allegedly not following its charter with the York City School District and not being transparent with its financial information. Litigation to revoke a school charter could be a yearslong process.

The York City School District held a public meeting  Feb. 13, during which administrators outlined several issues they've had with Thackston over the past year or two in a nine-page resolution.

Helen Thackston Solicitor Brian Leinhauser, standing, addresses the board after York City superintendent Eric Holmes recommends to board members to pursue the revocation of the charter for Helen Thackston Charter School.

The problems included troubling test scores, a lack of transparency regarding finances and little evidence of programming related to homeland security, a focus of the charter school.

The resolution would not prevent Helen Thackston from starting classes again in the fall, according to Helen Thackston solicitor Brian Leinhauser.

New revelations: Allison Petersen, a solicitor with the district, addressed several of the issues from the February resolution along with new revelations in a separate resolution introduced at Monday's meeting.

Petersen outlined new information that the district found “even more concerning” than what they outlined in February.

Among them is a pending lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas in which the landlord of the school building filed an action seeking back rent for nonpayment of the commercial lease.

York City Schools Superintendent Eric Holmes gives an update on his district during a news conference regarding the Campaign for Fair Education Funding at the York City School administrative building in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The district also learned that Helen Thackston continued to miss payments to the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System and that Helen Thackston had a 403b, otherwise known as the tax-sheltered annuity plan, something the district did not know.

In reviewing the 403b, the district discovered that the school had not funded the 403b plan in nearly two years, from July 1, 2015, through at least April 7, 2017. In that period, the charter school owed more than $275,000 in unfunded employee and employer contributions, according to the new resolution.

The district  also has received a number of complaints from former employees of Helen Thackston who allege they have improperly low funds in their 403b plans.

Updates: According to Petersen, while the district has received documentation “periodically” from the charter school since the February resolution, the school missed some key deadlines regarding document submission, including incomplete audits from the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

Petersen said the district requested that Helen Thackston have the auditor of a pending audit write a letter to the district explaining why the audit has not been completed as well as an expected time of completion.

The letter was received several weeks after the deadline, according to Petersen, and the auditor’s letter did not indicate why the audit had not been completed, nor did it provide a timeline for completion.

Another deadline from the February resolution that was “notably missing” was a plan to address academic performance issues. Petersen said the charter school submitted “very little to anything” documenting how the school would outline or measure the progress, as well as who would be responsible for the initiative.

Thackston's School Performance Profile  has not improved from year to year, according to the resolution, dropping from 57.5 during the 2012-13 school year to 37.9 in 2015-16.

The resolution also states that Thackston did not administer a school climate survey in the 2014-15 school year and that its 2016-17 survey did not comply with standards outlined in its renewal charter, which required the school to have the survey conducted by one of two survey agencies.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Helen Thackston Charter School has the 23rd worst composite SAT scores in the state.

Petersen  said the district “has taken issue” with the homeland security curriculum provided to the district from Helen Thackston. She said administrators are concerned about the program’s actual compliance with its charter, which lacks partnerships with local, state or national law enforcement agencies centered around homeland security.

“The administration does not believe that the charter school has adequately addressed those issues in the last four months,” Petersen said.

The Helen Thackston Charter School  was chartered in February 2009 and officially opened Aug. 19, 2009. The charter lasted five years through the district and was renewed in 2014.

Charter response: Leinhauser  addressed the board after the district outlined its findings.

"I stood before this board about 90 days ago, and one of the things I asked for was time," he said.

He added the school has provided hundreds, possibly thousands of documents to the district since the February resolution, but he said the school needed additional time to turn in proper documentation.

Leinhauser disputed several claims from the district, including the school's issue with the building landlord.

"As you well know, last school year, the state budget was nine months without payment," he said. "We continue to work through this issue with our landlord." Leinhauser said the lawsuit is a matter of course for the landlord.

"If I was (the landlord's) counsel, I probably would have advised them to do the same," he said. "We are not under threat of impending eviction."

Leinhauser later added that the school has made a payment of approximately $600,000 to the landlord, which has not yet cleared.

The solicitor also alleged the district did not ask for more documentation regarding curriculum, but "we continue to send them as they come in."

"It can't be said that we have not done everything within our power to give you everything that we have," he said.

Leinhauser said the school would like for the district to be patient.

"I would remind this board that it was not long ago that this board was being looked at by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania," he said. "What this board and district received was some time."

"We only ask what you've already received," Leinhauser added.

Several board members refused to comment. President Margie Orr said she and other board members will “go through the facts and see what happens.”