AT CYBER-SCHOOL, FOLLOW THE MONEY: Execs get some, teachers don't

MONEY, LIKE a piece of abstract art, can mean different things to different people.

One person's small pittance is another's idea of a nice chunk of change.

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John Craig

Take, for, instance, John Craig, founder and chief executive of the Philadelphia-based Frontier Virtual Charter High School, which laid off its teachers on March 9 and still owes the staff back pay.

"We do receive a small stipend. I don't even know what it is . . . it's something very small," Craig told the Daily News last month, when asked what he and the school's executives were paid.

The People's Paper filed a Right-to-Know request for salary information and found that Craig was paid $24,155 from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28 - about half of what he was due to earn for the four months. His annual salary is $140,000.

Patty Jones Thompson, the school's chief of outreach and development, got $17,500 during that same period, and Betty Simon, the chief of operations, received $18,300. Both were supposed to earn $110,000 a year, according to minutes from a public board meeting last fall.

It's not Arlene Ackerman money. But the amount that the executives collected is significant in light of the cyber-school's financial and academic woes:

* Frontier had pledged to provide students with art, music and foreign-language courses, as well as some career training.

But as the Daily News previously reported, the language teacher was cut during the first semester, and other courses were also axed as teachers' salaries and hours were soon halved.

* Craig admitted that only a quarter of the school's 85 students had received promised reimbursements for their use of the Internet to do school work at home, and a number of large bills were going unpaid.

* Other needed items - like a program that would have enabled teachers to craft curriculums for students with learning disabilities - went unpurchased, former teachers say.

The school came to a grinding halt when the teaching staff and the principal were laid off last month.

The state Department of Education launched an investigation, but a department spokesman recently said that there were concerns about whether the school was willing to cooperate.

"I just can't believe the state hasn't stepped in yet," said Chris Kristofco, whose wife, Amanda, was one of the laid-off teachers.

Kristofco, of Schwenksville, Montgomery County, said that he attended a Frontier public-board meeting on April 14 at the Yesha Fellowship Hall, Snyder Avenue near 23rd Street in South Philly.

"The board members kept saying, 'It's not about the money; it's about the children,' " Kristofco said. "I said, 'OK, then when can we expect [the executives] to give back their $60,000?' They wouldn't dare speak about that."

Kristofco said that one Frontier board member, Bishop James Darrell Robinson, told him that the school would pay back the laid-off teachers and that all the decisions by the school's leaders had been well-intended.

"You know, the road to hell was paved with good intentions," Kristofco said. "This is not a lemonade stand they're running. They're supposed to be educating children and employing people, but they're screwing people over."

The cyber-school is supposed to receive $435,520 from the Philadelphia School District to educate 54 city students. Through March 9, Frontier had received $247,820 from eight school districts across the state that are sending children to Frontier.

Three part-time teachers were recently hired by the school, but it's unclear how they'll make up the month of class time that was lost when the staff was laid off.

What is clear is that Frontier is trying to improve its image.

The Rev. Ethan Thornton, who previously worked as a volunteer parent liaison with the Philadelphia school district's charter- school office, said that he offered to help Frontier to better manage its message in light of stories in the Daily News.

Thornton, who was introduced to Craig by an associate, said that the school is going to pay him $350 for his work.

"We're not what's called friends - I just met him, to be honest," Thornton said of Craig. "People who knew of my work in the past thought I could offer him some support."

Thornton said that he met last week with about seven Frontier parents. "They're concerned about the future of the school," he said.

"I tried to let them know that right now, we need to wait and see until we hear from the Department of Education."

 


Contact David Gambacorta at 215-854-5994 or gambacd@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @dgambacorta.