Thackston Charter sues York City district over closure agreement

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

Helen Thackston Charter School is not going to close its doors this spring without a fight.

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, the charter school filed a lawsuit against the York City School District and the school board, seeking a declaratory judgment to keep the school open through the end of the 2018-19 school year instead of the June 30, 2018, closure the district demanded earlier this month.

On Wednesday, Feb. 21, the York City school board approved a resolution authorizing district solicitors Levin Legal Group PC and Gettle & Veltri to pursue legal action to ensure the closure of the charter school by the end of the current school year.

Seven district board members voted in favor of the proposal, with one board member, Lisa Kennedy — a former board member at Helen Thackston Charter School — abstaining from the vote. Board member Tonya Thompson-Morgan was absent.

Before voting in favor of the measure, member Michael Breeland said the board provided more than enough time for the charter school to get its act together, so he has no qualms voting in favor of pursuing legal action.

"I think our move is very important and very necessary,” he said.

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

On Jan. 31, Thackston submitted three years of audits to the York City School District under a dissolution agreement reached last October to forgo lengthy revocation hearings and close the struggling charter school at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

One condition was that Thackston's board “complete and approve ... each of the independent financial audits” for the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

Failure to do so would result in the school closing June 30, 2018.

In all three of audits Thackston submitted to the district, auditors included the following disclaimer:

“... (W)e were unable to verify and test the account balances for receivables, accounts payable, fixed assets, Local Educational Agency Assistance and expenditures because the School was unable to produce adequate records for the year under audit."

In a Feb. 12 committee meeting, York City district Superintendent Eric Holmes said his administration believed Thackston "failed to comply with its obligation under the Settlement Agreement" and it was looking for the charter school to acknowledge its noncompliance with the closure agreement.

More:Thackston audits: 'Unable to produce adequate records'

More:York City district prepares to take about 500 Thackston students a year early

More:City district orders Thackston to surrender charter, close in June

Lawsuit: In the charter school's lawsuit filed this week, Thackston’s lawyers claim the school is in compliance with the dissolution agreement reached between the charter school and the city school district last October.

Thackston’s lawyers argue a disclaimer audit is one of four results that can come from an audit — a qualified audit, an unqualified audit, an adverse audit and a disclaimer audit — and the district didn’t specify any of that in the closure agreement.

“The plain language of the Agreement does not identify any limitations on the type of audit report" Thackston could submit, so its submission of disclaimer audits is in compliance, the lawsuit states.

In addition, the charter school's lawyers claim the district has accepted audits with disclaimers from other institutions it oversees, so it shouldn’t be the basis for noncompliance in the closure agreement.

The audits have been outstanding for years, the lawsuit acknowledges, but the district should have done a better job overseeing the charter school’s operations.

Helen Thackson Charter School solicitor Brian Leinhauser addresses the board during a rescheduled board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Bill Kalina photo

In a letter to York City administration solicitor Allison Petersen, sent the same day Thackston filed its lawsuit, the charter's solicitor, Brian Leinhauser, claimed the district is also to blame for the school's financial disarray.

“The District has long ignored Helen Thackston Charter School and not paid attention to what was going on leaving issues such as the incomplete audits to fester," he wrote.

Public comment: Several parents and teachers of Thackston students attended the district school board's Wednesday, Feb. 21, meeting to show their support for keeping the school open through the end of the 2018-19 school year.

Tracey Reasner, an English Language Arts and writing teacher at Helen Thackston Charter School, said a June closure would weigh heavily on students.

"I am lucky enough to be given an insight into our students’ world through their writing," she told board members. "The connection they feel to each other, their teachers and the close-knit community they’ve built at Thackston is a hallmark of how they feel about their school."

What's next: Reached after the meeting, district school board solicitor Jeff Gettle said he and his legal team are poring through the lawsuit and considering whether to pursue a counterclaim, a separate claim or a claim incorporating both in the coming days.

Thackston's solicitor Brian Leinhauser was not present at the meeting.

The Helen Thackston school board will hold a meeting Thursday, Feb. 22, at the charter school building located at 625 E. Philadelphia St. in York City.