EDITORIAL: Time for answers about Thackston

The York Dispatch
  • Two years after a scathing state audit, Helen Thackston Charter School continues to struggle.
  • School officials have been tight-lipped about a recent staff shake-up.
  • The community deserves some answers.

A 2015 state audit of Helen Thackston Charter School painted a picture of a leaderless institution in disarray.

Helen Thackston Charter School, 625 E. Philadelphia St., York. Amanda J. Cain photo

At the time, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, in effect, threw up his hands in frustration.

"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," he said. "The lack of documentation makes it nearly impossible to draw any sound conclusion."

Nearly two years later, the publicly funded independent school is still struggling, and the York City school board has notified Thackston it’s at risk of losing its charter to operate.

Helen Thackston school at risk of losing charter

Along with problems with teacher certifications, a potential ethics violation and other issues, DePasquale's routine audit cited Thackston’s failure to keep proper financial records and raised concerns about reimbursements and double-billing for tuition paid by local school districts.

"The number of findings and recommendations indicates a systemic breakdown in accountability, effectiveness and transparency," he said.

York City gives Thackston Charter School deadlines

Last month, the York City school board, which has the power to authorize and revoke school charters within the district, summarized its problems with Thackston over the years — and some sound all too familiar.

Helen Thackston Charter School Principal Denise Butts, left, confers with the school's attorney, Brian Leinhauser, as 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

Among the issues discussed at the public meeting was a lack of transparency regarding finances, which should be particularly troubling to the taxpayers who fund Thackston.

The school board gave the charter a series of deadlines for it to address the board’s concerns. If it fails to meet the benchmarks, the school board can "revoke or not renew (Thackston's) charter." The school opened in 2009. Its charter was renewed in 2014, and is up for renewal again next year.

Thackston hires former York City superintendent in staff shake-up

In the weeks since those deadlines were issued, more red flags have been raised.

On Feb. 23, Thackston Principal and CEO Denise Butts told the charter school’s board that administrators were having difficulty gathering the financial information the school district asked for, citing, among other issues, turnover in school management in the past several years.

On the heels of that news came more turnover:

School solicitor Brian Leinhauser last week confirmed the termination of Kimberly Kirby, Thackston's business manager and human resources director, and the addition of former York City schools Superintendent Carlos Lopez as a part-time CEO.

Students walk out, protest at Thackston Charter

And Butts herself has been noticeably absent. Although Lopez and other staff members have been answering calls and emails sent to her since Feb. 24, Leinhauser said Butts is still on the school's payroll.

Approximately 100 Thackston students abruptly left their classrooms Friday and marched outside  the school in support of Butts and to demand answers about her absence.

After shepherding the students into the school’s gymnasium for an impromptu assembly, Lopez told them, “I’m unable to answer any of your questions about Miss Butts.”

He told York Dispatch reporter Junior Gonzalez the same thing, but, like Leinhauser, stated Butts is still employed by the school.

That’s simply not good enough.

It is beyond time for Thackston administrators and school board members to fully and openly address what is going on in the school — who’s running it, who’s not and why exactly the changes were made.

As for its finances, they should, quite literally, be an open book.

Every resident, particularly the property owners who foot the bill for the school, and every student, including those who attend traditional York City School District schools, deserve these answers.