With Thackston closing, its CEO already planning new charter school

David Weissman
York Dispatch

As one door closes, another opens — and when it comes to Helen Thackston Charter School's students and staff, that might even be the same door.

Just a day after the school boards for Thackston and York City School District finalized an agreement to close the embattled charter school after the 2018-19 school year, Thackston's CEO told The York Dispatch he's hoping to start another charter school, possibly in the same building.

Ideally, he said, the new charter school would be ready to accept students the day after Thackston closes.

Carlos Lopez, a former York City district superintendent who was hired as Thackston's CEO in late February, said he's in the early stages of working on a new charter plan with a group of community leaders. He declined to list any of his potential partners.

Helen Thackson Charter School CEO Carlos Lopez and Principal Melissa Achuff speak to the board during a meeting. Bill Kalina photo

Asked whether he was considering locating the new charter school at the same spot as Thackston's current building, he said he considers Thackston a fine facility and that the decision would depend on whether they could work out a reasonable lease agreement with the property owners.

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

More:Thackston preparing to make its case against charter revocation

The building, at 625 E. Philadelphia St. in York City, is owned by Charter School Property Solutions, a Nevada-based organization that bought the property and funded renovations in 2012 as Thackston prepared to add high school grades.

The school boards for Thackston and the district each unanimously approved a dissolution agreement during separate special board meetings Thursday, Oct. 19.

The agreement states that Thackston will not seek to renew its charter when it expires following the 2018-19 school year and, in return, the district canceled revocation hearings originally scheduled to begin Oct. 13.

Thackston's employees were informed about the possible agreement before the school boards voted on it, according to Thackston solicitor Brian Leinhauser.

Lopez said he wasn't at that meeting with staff members, but his understanding is that a teacher had asked about the possibility of opening up a new charter school, and those at the meeting were told a plan is being pursued.

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

Lopez said future employment at a new charter school for staff that remain at Thackston can't be guaranteed, but it is possible some would be hired.

Leinhauser, Thackston principal Melissa Achuff and York City Superintendent Eric Holmes could not be reached for comment Friday, Oct. 20.

Lopez declined to go into details about plans, but he said a new charter school would ideally open by July 1, 2019, to allow for a seamless transition for Thackston students and parents.

York City  school board President Margie Orr said she hadn't heard anything about Lopez's plans.

After the agreement was finalized Thursday, Orr said the Thackston ordeal highlights the need to reform Pennsylvania's charter school law and the need for better oversight from school boards and more 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.

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

Orr said Friday, Oct. 20, that any applicant for a charter school must prove it will offer students something the district doesn't offer, aside from just smaller class sizes.

Thackston's charter was approved on the basis of its proposed homeland security curriculum, which it lacked, according to the district, which cited the lack of homeland security programming as a reason for revocation.

Another issue cited in the district's pursuit of revocation was three years' worth of overdue audits, which Lopez said was a big reason the board moved toward the agreement to close Thackston.

Lopez said the school's attorneys told the board it would be very difficult to justify those incomplete audits as it fought against revocation.

Though the school feels it is moving in the right direction under its current leadership, Lopez said mistakes by past administrations made the board's ultimate decision logical.

Thackston has yet to complete and finalize audits for the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. Those audits must be finalized by Jan. 31, 2018, as must the 2016-17 audit by April 1, 2018, or the school will close following the 2017-18 school year, per the agreement.

The agreement also helps Thackston and the district save the time and money that would have been used during revocation hearings and a subsequent appeal, Lopez said

That time and money will instead be spent on students, he said.

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