Judge: Helen Thackston Charter School must close by end of June

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

Helen Thackston Charter School must close by the end of the month, a York County judge has ruled.

York County Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn said Friday, June 15, that Thackston must take all steps necessary to surrender its charter and close by June 30.

That date was set by an agreement signed by Thackston and York City School District officials last October in lieu of revocation hearings.

The agreement stated that if Thackston failed to complete and turn in overdue audits for school years 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 by the end of January, it must close by the end of June. If it complied, it would stay open until the end of the 2018-19 school year.

The legal battle commenced because the audit reports Thackston handed in on time included disclaimers, as its auditing firm noted missing documents prevented it from rendering an opinion on the financial situation of the charter school.

More:Thackston, facing closure, and York City Schools outline their cases ahead of trial

More:Thackston school's fate to be determined by judge's interpretation of completed audits

The district argued — and Renn agreed in his ruling — that the disclaimers meant that Thackston failed to complete its audits.

Renn noted in discussing his ruling that the court's definition defines an audit as an examination and verification of an entity's account books.

Renn also ruled in favor of the district in its counterclaim that Thackston violated the agreement by commencing legal action, and therefore Thackston must reimburse the district's legal fees related to this litigation — more than $56,000 at the time of the hearing.

Reaction: Thackston solicitor Brian Leinhauser alluded to the potential for filing an appeal during interactions with Renn, but Leinhauser said after the hearing that the charter school's board will ultimately decide whether or not to appeal.

He said the board's thought process heading into the trial was that it would not appeal a negative outcome, but he didn't know whether that would change.

Several Thackston faculty members who attended the nearly seven-hour trial were visibly upset and consoling each other outside the court room following the ruling.

Melissa Achuff, Thackston's principal, said after the ruling that her mind is completely focused on the students and making sure they have a peaceful transition to a new school.

Margie Orr, the district's school board president, said she's confident the district can handle the influx of students who will be coming from Thackston, but Achuff said she doesn't believe the transition will be easy on the students.

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

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

Achuff said she and other Thackston officials met with district officials about six weeks earlier to plan for a transition, but they were hoping for a yearlong transition.

District spokeswoman Erin James issued a statement following the ruling that they have a plan in place to contact Thackston students and families within the next week about registration and will host orientation before school starts in August.

"Our goal in this process will be to forge strong relationships with the families of our new students, who we enthusiastically welcome to our Bearcat family," the statement reads.

Trial: The nonjury trial consisted of five witnesses, three called by Thackston and two by the district.

Renn attempted to speed the trial along — telling both parties that the hearing would be completed Friday — by preventing Leinhauser from asking questions about what led up to the agreement, disclaiming its relevance.

Before the hearing, Renn had granted a motion by the district to exclude testimony about the district's audits or the audits of any other charter school it oversees, also because of a lack of relevance.

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

During Leinhauser's questioning of Tom Taylor, Thackston's business manager, Renn also questioned the relevance of testimony about the charter school's efforts to complete the audit.

At one point during a back-and-forth with Leinhauser on this topic, Renn said, "it sounds like it wasn't a completed audit," though he eventually allowed the testimony to continue.

Thackston's argument centered on its assertion that there are four accepted outcomes of an audit, with a disclaimer audit being one of the four, and the agreement didn't specify what type of audit would qualify for compliance.

More:With Thackston closing, its CEO already planning new charter school

More:Oversight of Thackston a case study as state considers charter reform

The district countered that the purpose of an audit is to issue an opinion as to the accuracy of an entity's financial reports, and since a disclaimer is forgoing the issuance of that opinion, the audit was not completed.

Holmes: While district Superintendent Eric Holmes was on the witness stand, he testified that he was initially against the prospect of a settlement agreement with Thackston, but he agreed once the provision was added requiring the audits be completed by a certain date.

After several years of not receiving documents the district requested from Thackston, Holmes said he felt the public deserved to know, via independent verification, where money was spent and whether it was spent properly.

Dr. Eric Holmes

He said he didn't know before the agreement that a disclaimer was a possible outcome of an audit.

In questioning Holmes, Leinhauser brought up the school district's allegation of self dealing by a former Thackston board member.

The allegation — mentioned as part of the initiation of revocation hearings — was that Thackston signed a $130,000 contract in 2013 with a firm run by its former board president.

More:WATCHDOG REPORT: Thackston Charter contracted with firm started by board president

More:Thackston Charter School's former biz manager charged with felony theft

Holmes testified that the information leading to that allegation came from records given to the district by Thackston's former business manager, Kimberly Kirby.

Leinahauser stated during questioning that Kirby had stolen those records, about 20 pages worth of documents, from Thackston.

Kirby was charged with felony theft by York City Police in March 2017 after allegedly stealing more than $12,000 from the school.

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