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EDITORIAL: Charter oversight was city school district's job all along

The York Dispatch

York City School District’s superintendent is right.

Eric Holmes testified last week that the public deserves to know how Helen Thackston Charter School spent tax dollars and whether that money was spent properly.

However, we’d like to point out that oversight of the charter was the York City school board’s responsibility all along.

Sure — better late than never, we suppose.

Last year the board sought to revoke Thackston’s charter, citing concerns ranging from declining student performance to inadequate staffing certification and a failure to acquire child-abuse background checks from all employees.

More:Thackston board OKs long overdue audits, refuses to release or even describe them

More:York City, Thackston boards agree to close charter school after 2018-19

Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Students return to Helen Thackston Charter School Wednesday with all construction completed. Bill Kalina photo bkalina@yorkdispatch.com

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

Last October, on the eve of a days-long revocation hearing, Thackston's board signed an agreement with the school district to stay open one more year and then close for good in 2019.

That was the deal, however, only if the charter completed and turned in the overdue audits by the end of January 2018. If the school couldn’t do that, it would have to close by the end of this month.

More:Thackston Charter sues York City district over closure agreement

According to Carlos Lopez, a former York City district superintendent who was hired as Thackston's CEO, the missing audits were a big reason for the board’s decision to strike a deal ahead of the revocation hearings.

Helen Thackson Charter School CEO Carlos Lopez and principal Melissa Achuff address the school board during a rescheduled board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Bill Kalina photo

It’s still hard to understand why either side thought Thackston could produce documents by January — to remain open one last year — that it couldn’t produce three months earlier when its charter life depended on it.

It has been pretty clear since the agreement was signed last fall that Thackston’s Class of 2018 likely was going to be its last.

And on Friday, Judge Richard K. Renn agreed, ruling the “disclaimer audits” the school submitted by the January deadline were inadequate and did not meet the court's interpretation of an audit. That would be one that results from an examination and verification of an entity's account books.

He ordered Thackston to take all steps necessary to surrender its charter and close by June 30.

So if the end, if not the timing of the school's closing, was hardly in doubt, what did the October agreement accomplish?

More:Thackston's issues expose holes in nonprofit oversight

Well, for taxpayers, it aborted days’ worth of testimony that might have shed light on how the charter’s finances became so messy in the first place, since the chartering school district was supposed to be providing oversight.

Unfortunately, Friday's trial wasn't as illuminating as it could have been, since the judge limited its scope to the question of what constitutes an adequate audit.

Helen Thackson Charter School solicitor Brian Leinhauser addresses the board during a rescheduled board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Bill Kalina photo

Renn wouldn’t allow Thackston’s attorney to ask questions about what led up to the October agreement, and he granted a motion excluding testimony about the district's own audits or the audits of any other charter school in the district.

More:State: Thackston hasn't filed financial reports since 2012

More:WATCHDOG REPORT: Thackston Charter contracted with firm started by board president

Yet we do know there were plenty of red flags for years before the district finally sought to close the school in 2017.

The state auditor general released a damning report on Thackston in 2015 — but by then the city school board hadn’t even received an annual report from the charter since at least 2013.

Annual reports, required by law, are supposed to include a charter school's financial audits, meeting dates, leadership changes, certification status of staff members and fundraising activities, among other information.

It’s the type of information the city school board should have reviewed before renewing Thackston’s charter in 2014, which it did anyway, with little discussion.

It's important to understand what happened with Thackston because charter schools are not private schools — they are taxpayer-funded institutions, and they must be held accountable for how they spend public money and the results they achieve.

The charter school’s annual revenue for each of the three audited years in question averaged $7.6 million — $6.1 million of which came from York City's state funding.

More:York City schools: End of state oversight near?

That's about $18.3 million that might have made a big difference to the district as it works its way out of state-ordered financial recovery. That money instead went to Thackston, whose officials simply can't produce records accounting for it.

It's also important because York City has three other charter schools the district school board is supposed to be overseeing, and Lopez, Thackston's CEO, has said he plans to propose another. 

More:With Thackston closing, its CEO already planning new charter school

If the board wasn't up to the job with Thackston, how can York City residents be confident it's properly monitoring the others? 

State Rep. Seth Grove, (R) sits with the York Dispatch editorial board for a discussion about taxes and the state budget. Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, is co-sponsoring a bill to reform Pennsylvania's 20-year-old charter school law, with the goal of giving chartering school districts all the tools they need to provide adequate oversight.

More:Oversight of Thackston a case study as state considers charter reform

The prime sponsor — Rep. Mike Reese, R-Somerset and Westmoreland counties — said the bill would impose more extensive audit requirements, set ethics guidelines similar to public school districts and develop a charter-specific performance matrix.

Asked specifically about the York City School District's handling of Thackston, both Grove and Reese said they would consider a provision handing charter oversight responsibilities in financially strained districts to the state Department of Education.

The bill sounds like a good idea that couldn't happen soon enough for the residents and taxpayers of York.