EVERETT — Educators from both traditional and charter schools were at the Everett Area High School Wednesday for a state Senate Education Committee hearing regarding charter and cyber charter school legislation.
Everett Area Superintendent Danny Webb started off by addressing the senators with a concern that there is a snowball effect with the costs of cyber charter school tuition as the spending increases and the cyber schools pull more students in.
He added that many students that opt for cyber schools do so for non-educational reasons.
Mark Kudlawiec, superintendent of the Chestnut Ridge School District, said that he has seen a paradigm shift of more students leaving public schools for cyber schools in the past decade. Kudlawiec has spent 32 years in education and is entering his ninth year with the district.
Kudlawiec testified that just over 14% of individuals in the county are living at or below the poverty level, with some students in his district being “well over” the 20% threshold of poverty.
“That equates, at a minimum, to a one out of every seven individuals in this county living in poverty. That being said, the one thing we are struggling with is that we can’t afford to lose money with unaffiliated cyber schools.”
“Last year, the Chestnut Ridge School District spent $391,213.53 — or, 2% of our budget — on unaffiliated cyber school costs. That amount would also equate to 8 mills of tax revenue I have to replace that school year.”
Kudlaweic, and many of the other districts that testified, said that there is an in- house cyber program offered by the district.
“We run a cyber program that holds students accountable, that encourages them to attend and participate in school functions and activities, can custom blend your child’s curriculum to fit their daily educational needs, and most importantly, truly care about the overall wellness and success of your child,” he said.
“Do you think that Commonwealth Charter Academy Cyber School cares about your child’s success? Last year, I had a student attend Commonwealth Charter Academy Cyber School , and after that student missed 108 days, they were finally dropped from their rolls and dropped out of school entirely.
“However, my district did receive a bill for an estimated $8,000 for that child, and I ask you for what? That is just one of the stories I can tell you about some of the experiences my district has with cyber schools. I know that some cyber schools are a good fit for students and I don’t dispel that. However, as I said previously, why not use your district’s cyber school? That is a school that knows your child and truly cares about their success.”
Lawrence F. Jones, Jr., CEO and founding member, Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School; Maurice E. Flurie, III, president and CEO, Commonwealth Charter Academy Cyber Charter School; and Michael A. Whisman, certified public accountant, Charter Choices Inc. testified on behalf of charter schools and discussed the various reasons as to why there may be charter schools, funding, testing, expenses, special education individual education plans for students.
Bedford Area School District Superintendent Allen Sell, who was with the district’s board president on behalf of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said that for his district, which he described as mid-sized, with about 1,800 students, has 120 in cyber school.
The school has both an internal cyber program, external cyber charter program and the HOPE for Hyndman Charter School is chartered through the Bedford Area School District.
Sell told the committee that it is difficult for a district of its size to manage a cyber program on some levels.
“We do not have enough to take a teacher out of every elementary grade. So where do you take a teacher out of? Third grade? First?” Sell said.
The district’s school board president, Tom Bullington, who sits on the Intermediate Unit 8 board, said that while “the district is unique in the fact that it is not unique” in comparison to other similar schools, he told the committee that in addition to its cyber students, the district has about 160 to 200 students in a brick and mortar charter school (HOPE for Hyndman Charter School).
“We decided that whenever you get to 15 students graduating that you really can’t effectively run a school anymore, so we closed it (the former Hyndman High School), and they created a charter school, and as you expect, declining enrollment continues to affect them,” Bullington told the committee. “Meanwhile we are still sending them multi-million dollars per year and see very, very, very poor performance. That school is there solely to fill a community need and has long since stopped filling an educational need. It’s my understanding that kindergarten in that school this year is maybe four or five students. It doesn’t take long to figure out, that’s not going to work out very well. They’re going to run out of money because they’re running out of students.”
He went on to add that he felt the cost is two-fold.
“The real cost there is not only to the taxpayer, because as a board we authorize to send them a check, and that is the last time that any elected official has any control over how that money is spent,” Bullington said.
He went on to add that in external cyber school, the school has not always seen positive results.
“We’re spending money that is not resulting in higher education, not getting the bang for the buck if you will. Meanwhile, what’s the cost to the student? How much is it costing us as a society to have 140,000 people in cyber school with a graduation rate that is less than 50%?” Bullington said.
Bullington also addressed never seeing an audit report from the charter school, which Whisman said is sent every year and the school sent documentation to the Gazette of local financial audits being sent to the school from the last two years once they were completed. But at the end of the hearing, Sell clarified that it was an audit that is to be completed by the state that to his knowledge had not been done since the school’s formation, and said that the charter school is “really good” about getting documentation to the district.
HOPE for Hyndman CEO Tom Otis, who was not in attendance at the hearing, said in a phone interview that he would look into making sure the school continues to stay compliant with the terms of its charter and state law, and that if a state audit should have occurred, he would look into that and ensure that the school takes the steps that it can on its end. He added that if anything is remiss, the school will bring it up to compliance.
Otis added that the school is currently continuing to enroll children and is continuing to strengthened its new curriculum which the school has felt has positively impacted test scores.