Oversight of Thackston a case study as state considers charter reform

David Weissman
York Dispatch
Dance program coordinator Casey "Kat" Rossum, right, has a laugh with student dancers, from left, junior Danaja Kelly, senior Yinelis Rodriguez and junior Andalia Goodin during an advanced dance class after school at Helen Thackston Charter School Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. More than 50 hours of testimony is expected to be taken over eight days of hearings that will determine the fate of the York City charter school. Bill Kalina photo

As York City School District prepares to potentially close its second charter school within five years, comprehensive state charter-school reform remains an elusive priority in the General Assembly.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle, school district officials and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association all have been in favor of charter-school reform for years, but different beliefs in what that reform should look like have prevented any significant changes to the 20-year-old law.

Rep. Mike Reese, R-Somerset and Westmoreland counties, is leading the latest effort as the prime sponsor of House Bill 97.

He and Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, a co-sponsor of the bill, spoke with The York Dispatch recently about what they're hoping to accomplish and the challenges the bill is facing.

Accountability: Grove and Reese both are calling for measures they believe will offer increased accountability and transparency in the state's charter-school system

Reese said his bill would impose more extensive audit requirements, set ethics guidelines similar to public school districts and develop a charter-specific performance matrix.

The overarching goal of the comprehensive reform bill, Reese said, is to give chartering school districts all the tools they need to provide adequate oversight.

In York County, that oversight falls on the York City School District, which is the county's only chartering school district.

Margie Orr, president of the district's board, agreed that chartering school districts need more tools, pointing to the struggles her district has had in trying to obtain certain records from Helen Thackston Charter School.

The district is set to begin revocation hearings for Thackston in October after the district cited a laundry list of issues, including declining student performance, inadequate staffing certification and a failure to acquire child-abuse background checks from all employees.

The move to initiate revocation hearings comes after three consecutive years of Thackston failing to turn in annual audits, which are required under state law.

Thackston solicitor Brian Leinhauser has promised that audits for school years 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 will be finalized and handed over to the district before revocation hearings begin.

Oversight: Reese said chartering school districts are given full oversight power and suggested the district should've taken action earlier to demand those audits.

When asked who held oversight of those districts overseeing charter schools, Grove and Reese both pointed to the state Department of Education but noted that the department's power is limited in that capacity.

The department's primary means of charter oversight is annual reports, which charter schools by law are required to submit electronically to the department and chartering school district by Aug. 1 each year.

Annual reports include a charter school's financial audits, meeting dates, leadership changes, certification status of staff members and fundraising activities, among other information.

A department spokeswoman told The York Dispatch in July that the state last received annual reports from Thackston for the 2011-12 school year.

A Right-to-Know request submitted to the department for all of Thackston's submitted annual reports found that Leinhauser had submitted Thackston's annual reports for school years 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 to the department in a letter dated Aug. 1, 2016.

Angela Riegel, the department's open records officer, noted in her response that the department does not consider these submissions within compliance of charter-school law because they were not submitted through its required online comprehensive planning tool.

Renewal: Thackston did submit its 2016-17 annual report correctly, but the department never received an annual report for school year 2012-13 in any format, according to its Right-to-Know response.

That report was due Aug. 1, 2013, which is significant because the district school board voted to renew Thackston's charter for five years on Feb. 12, 2014.

That vote, 7-2 in favor of renewal, also occurred without Thackston's 2012-13 annual audit report, which wasn't completed until March 22, 2014, according to the report's cover letter.

Thackston's 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 audit reports were all completed by December of the same year the audit covered.

Charter-school law does not specify when annual audits need to be submitted, but department spokeswoman Casey Smith noted in an email that Uniform Administration Requirements state that an audit must be submitted within nine months of the end of an audit period.

Since Thackston's 2012-13 audit period ended July 1, 2013, it did submit its report within nine months.

Orr, who had voted in favor of renewing Thackston's charter, acknowledged that the district should have taken more time to look into the school before renewing its charter.

At the time, the district was in the midst of a legal battle with New Hope Charter School — which closed in 2014 — and Orr said that battle took time away from board members looking further into Thackston.

Financial watch: The district also has been listed as a moderate financial recovery district since 2012, but Orr said she didn't feel that financial strain has diminished oversight of its charter schools.

Grove suggested that districts under financial watch might have difficulty conducting proper oversight of charter schools.

He and Reese both agreed that they'd consider including a provision in their reform bill to hand oversight responsibilities of charter schools in financially strained districts to the state Department of Education.

The bill currently sits in the House Rules Committee after passing the full House and Senate earlier this session. Amendments added in the Senate forced the bill to move back to the House for concurrence.

Asked whether she would support a provision transferring oversight of charter schools from financially strained districts, Orr deferred to York City Superintendent Eric Holmes.

Holmes declined to comment on the topic after issuing a statement on the district's decision to renew Thackston's charter in 2014.

His emailed statement, which was in response to an interview request, noted that the district followed all state laws and legal precedents in its "lengthy and thorough" examination of Thackston's operations prior to renewal.

Holmes, who had recommended that board members renew the charter, wrote that the renewal was contingent on several conditions, including improved student performance, implementation of a homeland security curriculum as laid out in the school's charter and a plan to hire and retain highly qualified teachers.

"This district takes seriously our responsibility to hold charter schools accountable," he wrote. "Since 2014, the district has discovered serious concerns and has attempted to resolve them. Unfortunately, those efforts were not successful, and we have now taken the difficult step of holding hearings regarding the revocation of Thackston’s charter."

The first revocation hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 13 at the York City School District administration building, 31 N. Pershing Ave.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.