Lincoln Charter's blame of EdisonLearning points to complicated history with former manager

When York City School District's attorney announced last month that Lincoln Charter School would get a second chance after multiple overdue audits, officials from both the district and the charter blamed the school's former management company for some of its troubles.

But a spokesman for EdisonLearning disputes the connection, saying the company wasn't even involved with the charter after 2013.

At a district school board committee meeting in December, Lincoln Charter School Principal and CEO Leonard Hart gave several reasons for the delayed paperwork — which came down to one incomplete audit from 2013-14 — including a change of board leadership and a redo of the audit by a new firm.

But he also pointed a finger at EdisonLearning.

"They left us high and dry," Hart said.

Poor management: Edison did not leave the financial records needed to complete the 2013-14 audit, he said, and since the school's contract with the company was up, officials no longer had access to its online database of student records.

Hart said the school had to build a new database from scratch in order to start the school year when the current administration took over in 2015.

"We the taxpayers, that’s our money going into Edison, so those records should have ... belonged to the taxpayers and the city of York," district board member Michael Breeland added.

Lincoln Charter School Principal and CEO Leonard Hart gets a hug from kindergartners after reading to them 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

More:York City to give Lincoln Charter second chance on untimely audits

More:Lincoln Charter School audit includes disclaimer by firm

But Edison's director of communications, Michael Serpe, said that's not true.

First, although the company did record-keeping for the charter, copies of all financial records were provided to the board of the school — formerly called Lincoln-Edison — at each meeting, he said.

And second, Edison hadn't been managing the charter for more than a year before the current administration arrived.

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

Lincoln Charter School students, faculty and families prepare to ride bikes and walk from the school to York City Hall in celebration of Bike to School Day in York City, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Who's responsible? Catapult did not keep any records except for student testing data and only provided professional development services and software, said Jennifer Leckstrom, vice president with Catapult's public relations firm, Rose Communications.

So who was managing the school in the interim, and who was responsible for its records?

Told of the companies' responses, Hart said he did not know who was managing the school before his arrival, and he didn't know if Lincoln's previous board had copies of the records. 

"I don't know who had them and who didn't have them," he said. "I just know we didn't have them."

Hart did not respond to follow-up calls from The York Dispatch asking if he still thinks EdisonLearning shares blame for the lack of records.

If Edison left at the end of 2013, Lincoln's previous board would have been responsible for the budget for the 2014-15 school year. The audit for that year found there was no budget passed, among other findings.

History: Edison has a long and complicated history with York City charter schools.

Breeland, the only current York City school board member who was on the board when Lincoln's charter was issued in 2000, said questions were raised about Edison before that decision was made.

“We had concerns about Edison and their practices, but those concerns at that time fell on deaf ears," he said at the Dec. 10 committee meeting.

The district initially tried to revoke the charter over concern that its management company had more control of school decisions than its board of trustees and opted not to renew it in 2004, citing dismal student performance and lack of profit-sharing.

The York Dispatch reported that Edison received more than $800,000 in excess revenue from the 2002-03 school year as a management fee, and most of the district's elementary schools outperformed the charter.

More: District might revoke charter 

More: Parents speak out at Lincoln-Edison meeting 

That decision to revoke the charter was overturned by the state's Charter School Appeal Board, and Lincoln's scores improved to be on par with district schools by 2007.

Edison also had previously managed Helen Thackston Charter School, which closed at the end of the 2017-18 school year over similar issues with overdue audits and student performance. Edison's contract with Thackston ended at the same time as its contract with Lincoln ended.

York City School District Board President Margie Orr 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

But under Edison, both schools were meeting state standards on annual exams — unlike city schools — by 2010, and Thackston had approved an $11 million expansion in 2013.

More: York City board approves Thackston Charter Middle School 

More: Thackston charter has high school in mind in York City 

More: Thackston Charter can add high school grades

Misconceptions: Serpe said school districts have always been against charters, since they require funding that would otherwise go to the districts, but misconceptions about the role of management companies contributed to the bad blood.

According to a 2002 lawsuit between the district and Lincoln, the charter's board must approve all decisions.

It's the "fiduciary responsibility" of the board to operate the school, Serpe said, adding that a company — whether for-profit or not-for-profit — only makes recommendations.

As for schools not receiving the money they are due, Serpe agreed that companies do get a portion of revenue to pay back upfront costs and a fee for service, just like any other business.

He acknowledged it's a challenge for a new school to build up an operational budget, but he said that's what they must do — noting that fundraising is often necessary.

Not needed: Serpe said when charters first started popping up, they were started by citizens who needed assistance with management, but as leadership became more self-sufficient, services were no longer needed.

The number of for-profit charter school management companies has significantly dwindled in recent years, Serpe said, with most of the companies that emerged during the charter management boom no longer in business.

Edison, which was the first company in the country to manage charter schools in the mid-'90s, has shifted its focus to alternative education and now works with at-risk students.

Lincoln currently uses both an outside firm and internal controls to manage its finances, and under Hart's administration, it has built a substantial operational fund.

The school went from about $200,000 in its reserve at the start of 2015 to about $3.5 million, as of the most recent completed audit, Hart confirmed.

He said it was just a matter of putting funding where it should have been all along, with more for the kids — and less for a school manager.