York City, Thackston boards agree to close charter school after 2018-19

David Weissman and Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

The boards of Helen Thackston Charter School and York City School District approved an agreement that will close Thackston following the 2018-19 school year.

The boards each unanimously voted on the dissolution agreement during separate special board meetings Thursday, Oct. 19.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Students return to Helen Thackston Charter School Wednesday with all construction completed. Bill Kalina photo bkalina@yorkdispatch.com

The first of eight scheduled revocation hearings was supposed to begin Friday, Oct. 13, but that hearing and two subsequent hearings were canceled, with neither the district nor Thackston officials providing any explanation.

Thackston solicitor Brian Leinhauser said after Thursday's meeting that the board had asked him to negotiate with representatives from the district for an agreement that would avoid revocation hearings.

Leinhauser said the board looked at the time, energy and money that was going to be needed to successfully fight revocation, and the members decided it was in the students' best interest to invest those resources in the classroom before closing.

Thackston's charter would have been up for renewal following the 2018-19 school year, and the agreement states  the school will not pursue that renewal, no matter how circumstances might change between now and then.

Thackston's board members declined to talk about the decision.

Agreement: Leinhauser said the school's faculty was alerted about the agreement ahead of the board meeting, and school officials will put together a plan to inform students and parents.

As part of the agreement, Thackston must meet several benchmarks, or else it risks being shut down at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

One of those benchmarks is completion and approval of three years' worth of overdue financial audits — for school years 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 — by no later than Jan. 31, 2018.

Thackston also must complete and approve its audit for the 2016-17 school year by no later than April 1, 2018.

If the school remains open into the next school year, Thackston can still accept new students for grades 7-12, but it must not actively recruit new students, and it cannot enroll more than 400 students who reside in the district.

District reaction: York City school board president Margie Orr said she voted in favor of the agreement because of Thackston's consistently poor test scores and lack of homeland security curriculum, the school's declared theme.

"It never materialized at how we thought it should've been," Orr said.

Orr said the Thackston ordeal serves as a lesson for charter-school law, better oversight from school boards and parental involvement.

"I learned that we need to be more forthright and observant," she said about the district and school board, adding she hopes Thackston parents bring their children back to the public city schools.

"We know this will hurt some children, but parents need to have a more active role in their child's education," she said.

York City schools will have space to accommodate the approximately 500 students that are enrolled at the school, Orr said, especially after the reopening of the Smith school as a STEAM Academy in August.

She  made a case to Thackston parents to give the district a chance.

"Just come to our schools," Orr said. "They'll see the difference."

In a news release, York City School District Superintendent Eric Holmes said the district has a "duty to hold charter schools accountable to the public," as well as be good stewards of taxpayer money. 

"This agreement allows us to meet both of those objectives," he said.

Background: Thackston officials had originally scheduled its special meeting for Tuesday, Oct. 17. The school had not provided legal public notice of that meeting in a local newspaper, as required by state law.

The school did advertise Thursday's meeting in Wednesday's York Dispatch.

The meeting was called after the first three revocation hearings scheduled at the York City School District Administration Building were canceled. Orr told The York Dispatch the fourth hearing, scheduled for Friday, Oct. 20, has also been canceled.

More:School board head suggests Thackston revocation hearings might not happen

More:Thackston preparing to make its case against charter revocation

The district school board unanimously voted to pursue revocation in June, when it adopted a resolution outlining a laundry list of alleged issues at Thackston, including overdue audits and declining student performance.

Helen Thackson Charter School CEO Carlos Lopez and principal Melissa Achuff address the school board during a rescheduled board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Bill Kalina photo

In response to the allegations, Thackston hired new leaders in Principal Melissa Achuff and CEO Carlos Lopez, who worked to correct many of the issues highlighted in the resolution.

Among the improvements, the school has settled pending litigation, bought more textbooks and added after-school programs.

Reporter Junior Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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