EDITORIAL: State must shore up charter law
As the York City School District and Helen Thackston Charter School close a messy chapter marked by financial chaos and declining educational performance with the agreement to close Thackston in 2019, a number of questions remain unanswered.
Chief among them is what happened to taxpayers’ money earmarked to run the charter school.
That’s because three years of back audits — and the current audit — remain undone, meaning thousands in taxpayer dollars remain unaccounted for. The school could close after the 2017-18 school year if the three back audits aren’t submitted to YCSD by Jan. 31, 2018, and the 2016-17 audit is not submitted by April 2018.
The boards of both schools each unanimously voted on the dissolution agreement during separate special board meetings on Thursday, Oct. 19.
The first of eight scheduled revocation hearings was supposed to begin Oct. 13, but that hearing and two subsequent hearings were canceled, with neither the district nor Thackston officials providing any explanation.
In those hearings, parents and students would have had the opportunity to speak about their experiences as they attempted to navigate extreme educational insecurity. And taxpayers would have likely heard tales of mismanagement at best and self-dealing at worst.
York City school board president Margie Orr said the Thackston ordeal highlights the need for charter-school law reform, better oversight from school boards and parental involvement.
According to the results of a York Dispatch Right to Know request, the York City School District approved the Thackston charter for five years on Feb. 12, 2014, even though the school had not submitted an annual report for 2012-13 that was due Aug. 1 2013.
Charter school law reform has been largely languishing in the Capitol while state lawmakers — who seem to be working behind schedule on much of their agenda, including the state budget — disagree on how to revamp the 20-year-old law that is clearly not protecting taxpayers’ money or the educational integrity of some charter schools in Pennsylvania.
The York City School District also has been listed as a moderate financial recovery district since 2012, but Orr said she didn't feel that financial strain has diminished oversight of its charter schools.
However, we’d like to recommend that whatever shape a new charter school law takes, it’s fortified with a provision that, in the case of a struggling school district overseeing a failing charter, the state might have to step in once a school fails in its duty to submit financial audits.
Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, a co-sponsor of House Bill 97, suggested in a meeting with The York Dispatch editorial board that districts under financial watch might have difficulty conducting proper oversight of charter schools.
He and co-sponsor Mike Reese, R-Somerset and Westmoreland counties, both agreed that they'd consider including a provision in their reform bill to hand oversight responsibilities of charter schools in financially strained districts to the state Department of Education.
As York City School District prepares to close its second charter school within five years, the elusive comprehensive state charter-school reform must become a priority for state lawmakers.