Thackston's overdue audits await approval; not enough board members show up to vote
Facing the revocation of its operating charter, the Helen Thackston Charter School board was set to address one of the most glaring deficiencies during its first meeting of the school year — but only three of the seven board members showed up to finalize three years worth of overdue financial audits.
The York City school board voted unanimously in June to initiate hearings to revoke Thackston's charter.
In a resolution written to begin the process, the district cited concerns at Thackston such as declining student performance, inadequate staffing certification and a failure to acquire child-abuse background checks from all employees.
However, chief among these concerns was the charter board's failure to file independent audits for the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.
Brian Leinhauser, Thackston's solicitor, has repeatedly asked the district school board for more time to complete those audits, and on Thursday he said the audits are complete and ready to be authorized by the board.
However, only three board members showed up to the meeting, and board Vice President Frank Hawkins was forced to end it with no official votes. Marcia Glover and Lisa Kennedy were the other members present.
Board president Danyiell Newman and members Nacole Gaines, Robert Safran and Kayla Sanchez were absent.
Leinhauser said the board plans to schedule a special meeting to vote on necessary agenda items — including approving the audits — before the next official meeting, scheduled for Aug. 24.
Annual reports: The board did receive some good news during the meeting from its new principal, Melissa Achuff, who said the school's annual report for 2016-17 was ready to be sent to York City School District and the state Department of Education.
The department hasn't received an annual report from Thackston since the 2011-12 school year, according to department spokeswoman Casey Smith.
Leinhauser disputed the department's assertion, stating his understanding was that former Principal Denise Butts sent in annual reports for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, though both were late and incomplete.
Financial audits are required to be included in annual reports, but the audits weren't completed and therefore couldn't be included.
"Filing an incomplete annual report is different than not filing one," he said.
The report Achuff is sending to the department also will be incomplete, Leinhauser explained, because the board has yet to authorize an audit for the 2016-17 school year.
Authorizing the start of that audit was supposed to be voted on during the June 27 board meeting, he said. The hope is for that audit to be completed by Dec. 31, he added.
State charter-school law requires charter schools to submit annual reports by Aug. 1 each year, Smith, the Education Department spokeswoman, wrote in an email. Failure to do so represents a violation that can be used as a basis for an authorizing school district to revoke the school's charter, she added.
Smith wrote that the department has notified the York City School District about Thackston's repeated failures to submit annual reports.
Hearings: Neither finalization of the ongoing audits nor authorization of the 2016-17 audit was included on the agenda provided to The York Dispatch before last week's board meeting.
The three board members present held an hourlong executive session before the start of the meeting and later dismissed back into executive session, citing "personnel matters," for another half hour shortly after hearing from Achuff.
Leaving the school following the meeting, Hawkins and Glover declined to answer questions.
The York City School District recently appointed Bethlehem-based attorney Ellen C. Schurdak to serve as hearing officer for the coming revocation hearings.
The first formal hearing date has not been announced, but Leinhauser said he has a telephone conference scheduled with Schurdak, and he believes they will be discussing the schedule for hearing dates.
State reform: Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, said she's eager to hear what both sides have to say.
Reforming the state's charter-school laws is one of her biggest priorities, she said, though she voted against House Bill 97, the primary charter-school reform bill currently being considered in the Legislature.
Hill-Evans said the bill doesn't do enough to ensure equal expectations between public and charter schools.
She specifically pointed to different requirements for staff certification and board members.
For example, public schools are required to have 100 percent of their staff members certified, while charter schools only need to have 75 percent of their staff members certified.
She also said greater oversight of charter schools is needed.
"Reform is only as good as its enforcement," Hill-Evans said, criticizing the state Department of Education for allowing Thackston to continue operating without submitting its audits for so long.
Leinahuser said he believes Thackston has an excellent case to present against revocation. The charter school is schedule to welcome students back Aug. 28.
— If you or anyone you know has any knowledge of Helen Thackston Charter School's operations, please contact reporter David Weissman at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.