School board group seeks charters' data

Bruce Crawley, Chester Community spokesman.

For the group representing Pennsylvania school board members, when it comes to the state's billion-dollar charter-school industry, there's no such thing as too much information.

But frivolous is the word charter-school operators are using to describe the blizzard of Right-to-Know requests submitted by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

They were lodged with about 180 publicly funded charters in every corner of the state, seeking data on how those schools spend millions of dollars on such items as salaries, consultants, rent, ad campaigns, and a long list of other expenditures.

The requests represented another salvo in the ongoing tensions between operators of charters and the public-school systems responsible for paying their bills. School districts all over the region complain that charter payments are stressing their budgets.

"Last year, close to $1.3 billion left traditional public schools to go to charters, and that's tax dollars," said Steve Robinson, senior director of communications for the school boards association, "and taxpayers have every right to know how that money is being spent."

The requests were filed May 15. Although the charters were given five days to comply, they also had the right to seek 30-day extensions, and most had not responded as of Friday afternoon, Robinson said.

Some information, such as charter administrative salaries and school rent payments, appear to be available online at the Department of Education, although deep in data sites. But the school boards association has pressed for other details that aren't easily found or accessible online.

Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, lashed out at the requests as "frivolous."

"There's an anti-charter school movement out there," said Eller, who was spokesman for the state Department of Education under Gov. Tom Corbett. "The traditional public school establishment is anti-charter schools, because [charters] are focusing on what's best for students and these organizations [traditional public schools] are wanting to do what's best for the status quo."

He said everything the school boards group seeks can be found in annual online reports filed with the state Department of Education, as well as yearly reports to the school district that issued its charter and in federal nonprofit tax filings.

But Robinson insisted the information the school boards association seeks, including contracts, salaries of key administrators, and other data, was unavailable in public filings.

"We get hammered over spending, but think about charter schools - there's little if any fiscal accountability," said Lawrence Feinberg, a Haverford School District board member who heads the Keystone State Education Coalition, a grassroots public education advocacy group made up of school board members and administrators.

Feinberg cited the state's largest charter school, the Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County, which has a management contract with a firm headed by wealthy Montgomery County lawyer and political donor Vahan Gureghian.

"You go find out and tell me how much teachers get paid and how much Mr. Gureghian makes in profit," said Feinberg. He also raised questions over how much charters spend on the ad campaigns that attract students away from traditional public schools.

But Eller insisted the claim that such information was not available was "flat-out wrong."

Chester Community spokesman Bruce Crawley questioned "whether the purpose of the request is, actually, to harass. . . . That would be disappointing." Nevertheless, he added, "The school will comply with its legal obligations under the Right-to-Know law."

Joe Bard of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools said his group also believed there was far too little transparency about charter spending - particularly from the statewide online cyber-charters that are most likely to attract students from rural districts and that don't require district approvals.

Said Bard: "Cyber-schools are here to stay, so I don't expect that to change, but I do think the state has an interest in making the payment for them fair."

Joe Bruni, superintendent of the William Penn School District, said his large Delaware County district spends $5 million on charter schools, but he questioned whether payouts could be reduced if district officials and taxpayers had better data about how the money was being spent.

"If you're doing it for less money, you should be receiving less money," Bruni said. "Who is that money going to? If that happens to be private individuals or elected officials and they're also on the charter payroll, it could be a conflict of interest. There's a lot of transparency you probably won't find on a website."