York City to give Lincoln Charter second chance on untimely audits

Lincoln Charter School student ambassador Eliangeliz Achevarria, a fifth grader, greets fellow students during a rally celebrating the 22nd annual National Walk to School Day Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. Students, accompanied by the school's Drum Lions drum corps, marched a route near the school and held a rally in its courtyard. Over 5,000 U.S. schools participated in the event which promotes health, safety and community. Bill Kalina photo

The fate of Lincoln Charter School has come into question over the last two years, as the school revealed multiple untimely audits — similar to Helen Thackston Charter School, whose late audits eventually led to its closing.

But York City School District, which issued both charters, recently came to a decision about Lincoln — it will not be shutting the school down.

Instead, the district plans to draft an agreement, scheduled for a board vote in January, that will address past audit findings and reviews, with an expectation for no more late audits.

If all goes well for the charter, it will be renewed for another five years in June 2020. 

Completed audits: Two overdue audits — for school years 2014-15 and 2015-16 — were approved by Lincoln's board in April. 

Both audits had findings of fault, but the 2014-15 audit also had a disclaimer that there was insufficient information to form an opinion because there was no year-end balance for 2014.

More:Lincoln Charter School audit includes disclaimer by firm

More:Lincoln Charter School approves overdue audits, refuses to release them

Lincoln Principal and CEO Leonard Hart said when the current administration took over in the 2015-16 school year, the charter's previous board had already departed, the firm that had begun the 2013-14 audit had disbanded, and a new firm would not form an opinion on work it did not do. 

Without an ending balance for 2013-14 — which still remains incomplete, in draft form — charter officials could not start the 2014-15 audit, which also put them behind on audits for the following years.

Hart also claimed missing records from former for-profit management company EdisonLearning made it difficult to complete the audit.

But the company's communications director, Michael Serpe, said Edison was no longer managing the charter before the current administration arrived.

The school management arm of the company — along with Lincoln's contract — was sold to New Jersey-based Catapult Learning in December 2013, he said.

But Hart assured the district board that no matter who was running the charter then, Lincoln's current administration would not repeat its mistakes.

"We promise you that we’re gonna do the right thing, no matter who sits in the chair," Hart said to the district board. "Under this administration, it won’t happen again."

Other issues: The 2014-15 audit finding also cited a failure by the school’s management to submit a budget to the state that year; missing federal background clearance and statement of financial interest forms; and lack of documentation for reimbursement for the school’s National School Lunch Program meals.

Background checks and financial interest continued to be issues in the next year’s audit, but the other issues were resolved.

School district attorney Allison Peterson, of Levin Legal Group, said the charter's 2016-17 audit was completed on Sept. 25, and the 2017-18 audit is on track to meet the state deadline of Dec. 31.

More:Lincoln nearing completion of overdue audits, behind on 2016-17

Similarities: Thackston had also submitted three late audits for district approval Jan. 31, but since each had a disclaimer that certain items could not be verified because of inadequate records, the district deemed them incomplete.

The two entities had negotiated an agreement that the school would have to close a year before its charter ran out if it did not submit completed audits. Thackston sued the district, which countersued over whether the audits met that definition.

The York City School District's attorney Allison Peterson speaks during 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

After a lengthy legal battle, the charter agreed to close at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

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

More:Thackston Charter will not appeal, board votes to dissolve at end of June

The audits in question were from the same years Lincoln's were overdue — 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 — and the two schools have been linked in the past.

Former Lincoln president Oscar Rossum submitted Thackston's charter application in 2009, and a couple of Lincoln board members also had ties to Thackston. Both resigned when their terms ended, in December 2017 and January 2018.

More:Two Lincoln Charter School board members resign

Wary of change: Some York City board members were dubious of the charter's commitment.

James Sawor reiterated that Lincoln's board needs to have due diligence going forward so that they do not need to be told by the district when there's a problem.

Hart agreed, saying, "No one has to tell us to clean up our house," and Peterson added that it appears the board has been upfront and transparent about bringing these issues to the district's attention.

"They have been extremely cooperative with us," she said.

"It looks like over the years there’s been second chance, third chance, fourth, maybe a fifth," said board Vice President Michael Miller. "Do you think there’s any more chances left, or do you feel that you have a responsibility to perform every year?"

Lincoln Charter School Principal and CEO Leonard Hart high-fives a student after reading to kindergartners at the school during the My Brother’s Keeper 7th Annual Reading IS Essential: 100 Men Reading Program, Thursday, May 17, 2018. The program encourages 100 or more men to volunteer in city schools to read to students. Event supporters include the United Way of York County, A.L Handy Mentoring and the City of York. Bill Kalina photo

Making strides: Hart replied that he did believe the charter board was responsible to perform and had already put measures in place to ensure success.

The charter now has both internal and external controls for financial management, he said, and a plan to have all employees update clearances under a new system.

Other achievements, Hart said, include multiple upgrades to the district-owned building with a cash reserve of $3.5 million, as of the most recent audit; and a special education department for which the school has been recognized as a 2019 School of Excellence by the National Association of Special Education Teachers.

The board was impressed by the school's performance, and members expressed their support.

"I applaud you; we’re here for you," said board President Margie Orr. 

Tonya Thompson-Morgan commended engagement from teachers, staff and administration as well as strong parent involvement, saying the school is a "tremendous asset to community" and that she would like to see it thrive.