Thackston preparing to make its case against charter revocation
Helen Thackston Charter School has made numerous changes this school year in an effort to avoid closure, but a handful of unaddressed issues could loom large in its battle with the York City School District.
The first of eight scheduled revocation hearings is set to begin at 10 a.m. Friday, Oct. 13, at the district administration building, 31 N. Pershing Ave.
The York City School Board outlined its issues with Thackston in February and voted to move toward revoking the school's charter in a June resolution, which detailed more than 20 alleged violations.
The alleged violations included declining student performance, inadequate staffing certification and failure to acquire child-abuse background checks from all employees.
Since the issues were first brought up, Thackston officials have been working to address the grievances ahead of the revocation hearings.
CEO Carlos Lopez, a former York City School District superintendent who was hired by Thackston in late February, said the biggest change has been in leadership, which is focused on improving the educational and operational stability of the school.
Since the 2013-14 school year, Thackston has had five principals and chief executive officers. The previous four school leaders served simultaneously as principal and CEO, while the positions are now split between Lopez and new principal Melissa Achuff.
Achuff, who served as the school's vice principal for two years before the promotion, said the split in roles has proved helpful in allowing her to focus on the academics and school culture while Lopez handles more of the business operations.
Addressing concerns: Lopez said he's been proud of all the improvements made and issues settled at Thackston during the past several months.
The administration settled pending litigation with building owner Charter School Solutions and former management companies Edison Learning and Catapult Learning and, with the help of business management company Repice and Taylor, turned $1.8 million in debt into a modest surplus, Lopez said.
The school has ensured that all of its staff are properly certified and submitted its 2016-17 annual report on time and in the correct format for the first time since 2012, each previously a concern pointed out by the district.
On the academic side, Achuff said the school has invested more in textbooks as opposed to technology-based learning based on feedback from last year's student survey.
A greater commitment has been made this year to add after-school activities and better communicate students' homeland security involvement to the public and district, Achuff added.
Thackston's charter was awarded on the basis of implementing a homeland security curriculum, and the district has alleged that the school failed to implement or maintain that curriculum.
Longtime Thackston students Carlyse Taylor and Solimar Ramos — both seniors who enrolled at the school in fifth grade — said they've noticed a difference this year.
Taylor, who serves as senior class president, said the school just seems more organized this year, and more students are showing a willingness to get involved in clubs and sports teams.
Ramos said she's noticed teachers being more serious this year, whereas in years past some were more concerned with cultivating friendships with the students.
Potential closure: Neither knew what was at stake with the coming revocation hearings, but when they were told the school might be shut down, both expressed dismay at the prospect of having to attend the much larger William Penn Senior High School.
"I don't think it would be a good idea," Ramos said. "We're used to a smaller school. It would be harder, I think, to talk with teachers one-on-one (at William Penn)."
Achuff said that sentiment would be a major part of her argument whenever she is allowed to present her testimony during the revocation hearings.
"Parents deserve a choice, even if it's just a choice between sending their kids to a school with 1,000 kids or 300," she said. "Even if there's no difference academically or with the homeland security curriculum and (school size) is the only choice, that's what we're providing."
Thackston's Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores, which the district cited as a reason for revocation, have failed to improve during the past few years, though the district also has witnessed declining test scores.
Audits: A major issue Thackston officials have been unable to address is three years' worth of overdue audits.
Thackston's solicitor Brian Leinhauser has said the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 audits were nearing completion on several occasions during the past few months, but Thackston's school board held its last scheduled meeting before revocation hearings on Sept. 28 without finalizing any audits.
Leinhauser acknowledged after the meeting that Citrin and Cooper, the firm hired to complete the audits, hadn't been paid by the school until recently, which was one of the holdups.
Leinhauser said the board would hold a special meeting “the minute (audits) are released,” in accordance with the Sunshine Act.
Lopez said he's counting on those audits being finalized before the end of the hearings. The last hearing is scheduled for Nov. 16.
Achuff said the missing audits are a bit frustrating because there's nothing she can do to move the process along more quickly.
"Teachers and educational leaders in general tend to be problem solvers, so it's hard when I can't just jump in and solve it," she said. "I just have to be patient."
GeoSource: Another looming issue likely to come up during the hearings is the district's allegation of self-dealing by Thackston's former board president Michael Mehosky.
In its resolution, the district stated that a school board member — using the initials M.M. — failed to disclose his ownership stake in GeoSource Capital LLC, which Thackston contracted with during the 2013-14 school year to provide homeland security curriculum services.
Mehosky admitted in an email to The York Dispatch that he had started GeoSource with a partner in 2010, but he claimed that he had sold all of his interest in the company in 2012, before becoming board president, and did not receive any compensation related to the contract.
Mehosky wrote in the July email that he would provide The York Dispatch with documentation proving he relinquished his interest in GeoSource before becoming Thackston's board president, but he still has not done so.
Follow-up emails to Mehosky have gone unanswered.
In response to a Right-to-Know request by The York Dispatch seeking all documents mentioning GeoSource, Thackston's solicitor stated in a letter that "following a diligent search of school records, including those maintained electronically and in paper format, no public records responsive to this request were located."
If the revocation officer ultimately rules in favor of the district, Thackston officials will be able to appeal the revocation to the state Charter School Appeal Board.
Lopez said that with the improvements made at the school recently, he's confident the school would win an appeal.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.