Thackston Charter: A look back at New Hope, York City's last charter school fight
Upcoming hearings that will determine the fate of Helen Thackston Charter School will mark the second time in five years that the York City school board has sought to shutter a charter school.
Charters are independent, though publicly funded, schools that operate by agreements — or “charters” — with the school districts in which they are based.
A 1997 state law authorized charter schools in Pennsylvania, and at one point York City was home to five of them.
As state and local tax dollars followed students from the district to charters — nearly 1,000 left the district over a five-year period — the already financially and academically troubled district struggled even more.
Teachers were let go en masse, programs were cut and schools were closed.
Yet as bad as things were in the district, the school board argued the situation was worse in one of the charter schools.
New Hope: In March 2007, the school board had voted 6-3 to grant former William Penn Senior High School basketball coach Isiah Anderson a charter to open the New Hope Academy Charter School at 459 W. King St.
The proposal promised seventh- and eighth-graders would learn in smaller classes, with about 20 students per instructor, and the school day would be 45 minutes longer. The school would be almost paper-free, using computers and electronic media for learning.
The school welcomed its first students Sept. 6, 2007, but less than a year later New Hope received its first bad news: The charter school’s (PSSA) state test scores in reading and math were about 25 percentage-points under the state target.
Still, the district school board approved an amendment to New Hope’s charter to add sixth, 11th and 12th grades by 2010.
By the fall of 2011, the school’s continuing poor academic performance — it had failed to make adequate yearly progress for four straight years — led to corrective action status, prompting special eligibility for state assistance under the No Child Left Behind Act.
In late January 2012, New Hope proposed adding an elementary charter school and the district school board again denied the request, citing the charter’s failure to account for management costs and its unfavorable academic track record.
Just a few days after that blow, New Hope officials were stunned by a letter from York City school board President Margie Orr notifying the charter school of the district’s intention not to renew the school’s charter
Hearings: On Feb. 23, 2012, the first of seven non-renewal hearings, which eventually included 22 hours of testimony, began. More than 200 people attended the first hearing.
Allegations flew from both sides, ranging from relentless truancy at the charter school to which entity had the worst state test scores.
Anderson, the school’s founder, took the witness stand for several hours on March 1, 2012, and confirmed he owned the building on West King Street that housed the school and was leasing it to New Hope at a rate of $16,500 a month.
Under questioning by Allison Petersen, the attorney representing the district, he also acknowledged his business Three Cord Youth Services, which ran the school, included a clause in the management contract that entitled 3 Cord to 50 percent of any year-end profits by New Hope.
All charter schools must operate as a nonprofit corporation, according to the Pennsylvania Charter School law.
Anderson testified for another four hours in mid-March, defending his financial ties to the school.
The hearings ended March 19, 2012, and four months later the city school board voted not to renew New Hope's charter.
Appeals: A lengthy appeals process began as New Hope supporters rallied around the school. At an Oct. 4, 2012, news conference, York City Mayor Kim Bracey blasted the district and board members, comparing their actions denying a renewal of New Hope’s charter to the Great Fire of Rome.
Board president Orr responded in kind, calling the mayor’s comments shameful.
In October 2013, the state charter school appeal board upheld the York City school board’s decision not to renew New Hope’s charter, ordering the school to close by Jan. 15, 2014.
Ethics: Perhaps most striking in the state board's finding was that, during the school's five years in operation, New Hope officials violated the Public Officials and Employees Ethics Law, Nonprofit Corporation Law and the school's own conflict-of-interest policy.
Anderson had disputed those accusations, but the state board found "Anderson's self-serving statements not credible," according to the 52-page explanation the appeal released.
The state board actually shed more light on the school founder’s financial relationships with New Hope.
For example, in its decision, the board referenced New Hope's Form 990, a financial document nonprofits must complete each year. According to the state board, New Hope's highest-paid independent contractors in the three academic years between 2009 and 2012 were all companies owned by Anderson.
During that time period, New Hope paid those three companies — Three Cord Inc., Three Cord Youth Services LLC and I. Anderson Real Estate — a total of $5.24 million, according to the 990 form.
For example, Three Cord Inc. — which managed New Hope — collected a management fee from the school that amounted to $1.55 million at the end of the 2011-12 academic year, according to the board's decision.
Three Cord Inc. is the umbrella company for Three Cord Youth Services, I. Anderson Real Estate and several other companies Anderson owns. Anderson is the sole owner and stockholder of Three Cord Inc. At the time, according to the state board, he drew an annual salary and all net income from the company.
(All three companies are listed as active on the Pennsylvania Department of State website.)
"There is substantial evidence in the record that Anderson has personally benefited from the contracts his companies have with New Hope," the board's decision reads. "It is clear from the record that Anderson exercises significant, if not de facto, authority over the charter school. Yet, in this position, Anderson has failed to fulfill his fiduciary duties to New Hope."
New Hope's board of trustees also failed to fulfill its fiduciary duties, according to the state board, because "many" contracts with Anderson and his companies, "were not understood prior to approval."
The state charter school appeal board later allowed New Hope to finish the 2013-14 school year as New Hope’s lawyers appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which in April 2014 agreed with the school board and state appeal board.
In addition to agreeing to the academic performance issues, the court also specifically noted the facts of the case supported the state appeal board’s allegations of violations of state ethics and nonprofit law.
The school dissolved shortly after its final school day on June 10, 2014.
Another school: A few months later, Anderson launched Hilda Goodling Impact Academy — a private school, rather than a charter — for 2014-15, but it closed mid-school year, with Anderson citing financial issues.
The school's basketball team — 2015 District 3-A champions — had to withdraw from the Class A state tournament because of the closure.
Anderson appears to coach basketball out of a local community center in Bristol, New Hampshire. He also owns a business named the Isiah Anderson Performance Center where he provides organizational leadership training, according to his LinkedIn account.
When reached Friday by a reporter, Anderson declined to comment for this story.
A schedule of hearings for the revocation of Helen Thackston Charter School’s charter is expected to be released soon.
Petersen, the attorney who successfully sought the non-renewal of New Hope’s charter, will again represent the York City School District.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Anderson said he is not employed by a Bristol, New Hampshire community center, but instead runs training out of the facility.