New charter school eyes vacant Thackston school, years after controversy
A sign appeared on the former Helen Thackston Charter School building this fall boasting of new "tuition-free" educational opportunities for York City students.
Nearly six months later, the building remains vacant as the proposed charter school — which secured a $500,000 line of credit before being rejected by the York City school board — languishes unfulfilled.
"It's not unusual for a charter to not be approved the first time," said Anne Clark, who was involved in Lincoln Charter School for 17 years and now serves as CEO for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
Despite that wealth of experience in charter schools — and, more specifically, a York City charter school — Clark said the organizers of the Thackston project never reached out to her or the coalition for advice.
Nonetheless, the group that coalesced around the empty Thackston building worked for months to drum up public support for the project.
"With Masters Academy of York, your child's future is in safe hands," one Oct. 19 Facebook post read.
Thackston background: The former Thackston school initially opened as a middle school in 2009 and opened a high school in 2013 before its charter was revoked in 2018 due to alleged financial mismanagement following a state audit report.
According to public records, none of the Masters Academy board members had direct ties to Thackston. However, documents show that Masters Academy secured its line of credit and would be leasing the property from the same company that funded a 2013 remodeling project for Thackston.
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In February, York City's school board rejected Masters Academy's more than 500-page charter application with little fanfare. This came after the organizers had solicited contact information for prospective students.
"This will happen; it's just a matter of not if, just a matter of when," said Cynthia Dotson, one of the people behind the Masters Academy project, in an interview. "[There are] a lot of people behind it that want to see it happen."
Community liaison: Dotson has worked on behalf of several York City charter schools, including one — Championship Academy of Distinction — that failed to gain school board approval three times between 2012 and 2014. Dotson, who divides her time between York and Florida, founded her own company, Charter School Management Solutions.
In an interview, Dotson said she was not leading the Masters Academy effort. Instead, she said she serves as a community liaison. Nonetheless, Dotson served as a public face of the project, leading public outreach efforts on social media and encouraging interested parents to reach out to her.
"I'm not there to get any financial gain from the school," she said.
York City school officials, who declined The York Dispatch's requests for an interview, raised concerns over Dotson's role in the proposed charter school in its response to the application.
"Because Ms. Dotson has never been identified as part of the applicant group and had represented at the first hearing that she was not associated with the application, it is unclear what her role is in the application or the proposed operations of the [Masters Academy] charter school," the district's response reads.
Fraught history: York City has a fraught history with charter schools.
The original Thackston school ran afoul of then-state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, as detailed in a 63-page report that highlighted issues of oversight and accountability.
“In the Thackston charter school’s case, there is no way to account for every dollar or to know if the school operated as intended because of a breakdown of internal controls," DePasquale said at the time. "The lack of documentation make it nearly impossible to draw sound conclusions.”
Last year, former Lincoln Charter School Principal Leonard Hart pleaded guilty to a charge of theft in connection to misappropriating some $6,400.
Meanwhile, a number of charter school proposals have come and gone in York City.
Clark said launching a new charter school can take years — sometimes with a lot of rejection along the way.
"It is an opportunity for the charter to go back and improve their application in the process," she said.
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Masters Academy's current board members include Mike Smith, Jermaine Cruz, Jennifer Mejia and Jason Phillips. Former board member Adrian Boxley, who was vice president, stepped down from the group sometimes between August and October, according to the charter's various filings.
Boxley, in an interview, said he stepped down for other obligations before the school gained momentum. Phillips declined to comment, while the rest of the board did not respond to requests for comment about the school.
On one recent weeknight, a group of cheerleaders were practicing inside the old Thackston school's gymnasium. They didn't know anything about the charter school proposal — they'd simply received permission to use the space.
Line of credit agreement: According to financial documents, Masters Academy secured a $500,000 line of credit from the Nevada-based CSP York LLC. The letter to prove the credit line, dated April 21, 2022, and made out to Dotson, also said the school can use the furniture, fixtures and equipment in the building. The charter project would be partially funded by its landlord, according to the charter documents.
Per the letter, Masters Academy would be able to negotiate the payment schedule with CSP York.
According to the lease dated May 18, 2022, found in the application, Larry Reider is the manager and contact person for the building. He is also the founding president of Charter School Property Solutions, the company that funded Helen Thackston Charter School when the building was renovated to add on high school grades in 2013.
Reider did not respond to a request for comment.
Lease figures: The lease would start July 1, 2023, and end June 30, 2033. Rent would be $1,250 per student. The example listed in the lease said that if the school starts with 400 students on Aug. 1 and added another 25 students, the rent would increase to $500,000.
That figure, however, is erroneous. Based on the example provided, the rent for 425 students would be $531,250. The documents do not indicate that rent would be capped.
Further in the lease document, language stipulates that the charter “shall pay $500,000 in base rent to landlord.”
The lease also states that Masters Academy would have a $0 security deposit and that any taxes would be waived for the first year. The charter application shows Masters Academy planned to provide "competency-based personalized learning." It would focus on three aspects for students: who they will be, through values-based education, who they are through personalized learning and who they become, through portfolio-based assessments.
According to the application, the founders felt the school was needed because "students of color and from low-socioeconomic status have historically been marginalized within the school and educational system." They wanted to make an equitable and excellent school to help students "achieve high levels of academic success," no matter who they are or where they live.
Those plans indicate the school expected to start with 225 students from kindergarten through the second grade. Gradually, it would expand to 900 students.
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Public hearings: According to York City School District records, officials held two public hearings with the Masters Academy founders. During the first meeting, the applicants reportedly "refused to answer many of the questions."
York City also received a letter several hours before the second hearing where the charter's attorney stipulated that the applicants would only answer written questions — which goes against York City’s policy. The policy requires the applicants to be sworn in and answer questions during the hearing.
“Policy 140 does not provide for the provision of written questions or written responses by the Applicant in lieu of answering questions in public while under oath,” the response said.
Clark, who did not review the application or speak with the applicants, told The York Dispatch this is not unique. She explained that the applicants may not know every question the district could ask. It would be fair for them to follow up with written responses after the hearing, she said.
“On the other hand, your presenters should be well-versed,” she said.
Staffing concerns: York City officials also raised concern about staffing at the proposed charter, indicating that the applicants did not submit a budget outlining the current year's staffing.
Clark said that part of the application process doesn’t make sense because an applicant can’t hire staff if they aren't an approved charter. However, she said it's normal for districts to ask additional questions about who will work in the charter school.
“Right now, that is a big question because there is a teacher shortage in Pennsylvania,” she said.
York City's response also indicated that Masters Academy did not meet the burden of showing sustainable support. Masters Academy reportedly did not identify a management services provider or name who would run the school.
Transparency questioned: There was also concern over Masters Academy’s transparency, including whether board meetings will be public. York City's response noted two of the board members have felony convictions, which was not disclosed in the application. The York Dispatch confirmed that at least one board member, who did not respond to a request for comment, had a past conviction for drug possession. No other current board members appeared to have convictions — at least not in Pennsylvania.
“The nature of these offenses are such that these individuals would not be permitted to have direct contact with students in a public school,” the York City school board's response read.
Finally, York City officials raised concern about the proposed charter's curriculum plan, including what special education and English as a Second Language services it would offer for students.
Next steps: Masters Academy has three options following the application denial. It can file an appeal with Charter School Appeal Board, reapply next fall with a new application or not continue at all.
Dotson said she believes that Masters Academy will fight to make the school a reality. No other officials connected with the application responded to requests for comment.
Clark said the majority of charter schools reapply. She pointed out that, in Lincoln Charter School's case, its organizers were denied by the district and successfully appealed. The case made its way through the courts before the school received approval.
“If it’s a good charter and they really believe in it — they believe there’s a need for it — then they should appeal,” she said.
If not, Clark added, the denial may have been a correct course of action.
— Reach Meredith Willse at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.