EDITORIAL: Demand full accounting from all involved in Thackston decisions

The York Dispatch
  • The bottom line is this: Thackston’s troubles did no sneak up on anyone.
  • There have been plenty of red flags over the years.
  • The process will move forward, but it’s important to understand how we arrived at this point.

As Helen Thackston Charter School officials prepared for a fight to keep its charter, the state Department of Education recently told The York Dispatch that it hasn’t received required annual reports from the school since the 2011-12 school year.

Why is that important?

These reports — which are supposed to include financial audits, meeting dates, leadership changes, certification status of staff members and fundraising activities, among other information — are tools for determining if charter schools are fulfilling their missions and following all laws.

It’s about transparency and accountability.

Charter schools are not private schools. They are taxpayer-funded institutions, and they are accountable for how they spend that public money and the results they produce.

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

In June 2015, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a damning report on Helen Thackston, based on his agency's audit of the charter school from July 2010 to October 2013.

"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 makes it nearly impossible to draw any sound conclusion."

DePasquale, a former Democratic state House member representing York City, went on to emphasize that the case was greater than a local issue because Thackston's reimbursements also come from the state's Department of Education.

"Those are all of our tax dollars," he said. "We owe it to parents, taxpayers and especially the students to make sure that every education dollar is focused on improving learning opportunities."

Brian Leinhauser, Thackston's solicitor, took issue with the Education Department’s recent claim, saying it was his understanding the school’s former principal submitted annual reports for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, though both were late and incomplete.

How late? How incomplete?

Brian Leinhauser, Helen Thackston Charter School solicitor, Thursday, July 27, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

The York Dispatch has filed multiple Right to Know requests with both the charter school and the York City School District for financial information related to Helen Thackston.

Failure to file the reports represents a violation that can be used as a basis for an authorizing school district to revoke the school's charter, according to the department.

The York City school board started that process in June, unanimously adopting a resolution citing concerns at Thackston such as declining student performance, inadequate staffing certification and a failure to acquire child-abuse background checks from all employees.

However, chief among these concerns was the charter board's failure to file independent audits for the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. 

The bottom line is this: Thackston’s troubles did not sneak up on anyone.

There have been plenty of red flags over the years — certainly after DePasquale’s audit was released in 2015, but also as early as Aug. 1, 2013, when the charter school missed the first of several annual reports. A Department of Education spokeswoman said the school district was notified when Thackston missed its deadlines.

Why is this important?

The York City school board renewed the school’s charter in 2014, with little discussion.

The auditor general’s report came out a year later, but, according to the Department of Education, the city school board should have known in 2014 that the charter school hadn’t filed an annual report for the 2012-13 school year.

York City school board President Margie Orr speaks during a voting meeting Wednesday, June 21, 2017. The board voted unanimously to revoke the charter of Helen Thackston Charter School.

The York Dispatch reached out to city school board President Margie Orr, who was a member at the time and voted in favor of the charter renewal, to ask if the members were aware of the missing report and if there were any concerns raised about it at the time.

Orr said she couldn’t recall but argued the focus now should be on the revocation process.

"Our vote to renew — that's over and done with," she said. "We can't keep looking back, you have to move forward."

We have no doubt the process will move forward, but it’s equally important to look back and understand how we arrived at this point.

In fact, we doubt this matter will be “over and done with” until there’s a full accounting of what happened with the Helen Thackston Charter School.