York district countersues Thackston, seeks order closing school, plus attorney fees

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

Just a month ago, the York City School District stated it had “a plan in place” for the expected influx of students from Helen Thackston Charter School.

Now, in a response and counterclaim to Thackston’s lawsuit filed Feb. 20, the district’s lawyers say the charter school’s failure to close by June 30 would cost the district “an amount that cannot be accurately computed or ascertained.”

In the response, filed March 15 in York County Court, York City School District lawyers denied claims outlined in Thackston’s lawsuit, including the district’s knowledge of the charter school’s poor record-keeping practices under previous management.

Helen Thackston Charter School students board Rabbittransit buses during dismissal 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

But district lawyers contend it doesn’t matter whether the district knew, because Thackston agreed to submit completed audits for the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years by Jan. 31 — and the response alleges Thackston should be held to account for its failure to do so.

In its counterclaim, the district is asking for a declaratory judgment to uphold the October 2017 agreement — which they say Thackston violated — and ensure the charter school’s closure by June 30. The district also wants Thackston to pay its attorney’s fees.

The York City School District holds a special meeting regarding the future of Helen Thackston Charter School at the Administration Building in York City, Feb. 13, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The agreement reached by the district and charter school boards was negotiated after Thackston reached out to the district to forgo lengthy revocation hearings, according to the district lawsuit.

‘Complete and approve’: The main point of contention in both lawsuits is paragraph 10 in the agreement, which states, in part: “By no later than January 31, 2018, the Charter School shall complete and approve at a public meeting each of the independent financial audits for the years ending June 30, 2014, June 30, 2015, and June 30, 2016.”

Each of the three independent audits submitted stated that auditors were unable to verify account balances, fixed assets and expenditures “because the School (Thackston) was unable to produce adequate records for the year under audit.”

York City district officials have said an unverifiable audit is an incomplete one, which prompted the district’s official notice to Thackston on Feb. 10 to close by June or face a lawsuit to ensure it. However, Thackston’s lawyers beat the district to it, filing a lawsuit Feb. 20 in which they contend the three audits submitted on Jan. 31 met the requirement set in the agreement.

'Negatively impacted': School district attorneys claim Thackston's failure to close by the end of June would leave the district "significantly negatively impacted” and cause the district to “unnecessarily incur expenses to register, evaluate, and place former (Thackston) students transferring to district schools in an amount that cannot be accurately computed or ascertained.”

District officials need time to hire more staff, purchase the appropriate instructional materials and prepare facilities for the orderly transfer of approximately 500 students expected to be absorbed by the district next fall, the lawsuit claims.

“Money damages will not be able to compensate either the District or transferring students if the District is not given enough time to properly prepare for the influx of students,” the countersuit states.

Response: When reached for comment, Thackston solicitor Brian Leinhauser said he reached out to York County Court and York City School District to get a pre-hearing conference expedited by late April to settle the matter on Thackston's audit submissions.

"My hope is by the end of April we’ll have had whatever (legal) discovery we will need so that the court can decide whether we have complied with the agreement or not," he said.

York City school board President Margie Orr declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit but said "I trust (Superintendent Eric Holmes) and his staff will get the job done" regarding the district's readiness in taking on an influx of Thackston students.

A York City School District spokeswoman declined to comment on issues relating to Thackston because of the ongoing lawsuit, while Helen Thackston school board President Danyiell Newman did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Tuesday afternoon, March 20.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct a quote by Leinhauser in which he said he hopes the court can decide whether the charter school has complied with the agreement.