Bethlehem Press

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Board, Charter Arts at odds

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 by Heather Nigrone Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

The BASD curriculum committee discussed their second charter school renewal for the 2017-18 school year Nov. 6.

The report and recommendation for the Lehigh Valley Charter HS for the Arts (LVCHSA) were reviewed, and an intense question and answer session followed. The school, located at 321 E. Third St, is in its 15th year, and currently educates about 630 students from grades 9-12, with about 15 percent of students coming from BASD. The curriculum includes a half day of traditional subjects such English, history, math, and science. Students then spend the other half of the day in their chosen program, including dance, theatre, instrumental and vocal music, visual arts, literary arts and ice-skating.

The school has worked out an agreement with BASD so students residing within the district are eligible to participate in extra-curricular activities at either Freedom or Liberty. But beyond that agreement, the relationship between the two entities is becoming increasingly strained. An investigator recommended an approval of the charter, but concluded that all students should be required to have a credit of Health class, as required under the Pennsylvania School code, and that too many students are sitting in study halls during the school day. There were also concerns about the lack of opportunities for students requiring special education services or individualized education plans, and a lack of a school lunch plan for eligible students.

A substantial line of questioning centered on the blind audition process that LVCHSA uses and whether it creates an inequity in the student body composition. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jack Silva expressed great concern regarding the lack of special education services within the school. Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy added that with only 7.5 percent of students requiring these types of services, a figure under the state average, perhaps the school’s audition process unfairly screened out students with those needs. He also questioned how the audition process seemed to screen out students who were English language learners, and the apparently disparities in the economic background of the students.

The tension grew substantially in the room once the topic of the charter schools’ new building and the building process were brought into question. Board member Dean Donaher questioned the integrity of an LVCHSA board by noting that earlier in the day, an unnamed board member of the charter school posted a Facebook post saying no tax dollars were used the nearly 27 million dollar construction project. While a representative of LVCHSA was not aware of the Facebook post, the school acknowledged that portions of their mortgage and construction expenses were in fact paid by district tax revenue. Donaher further stressed that the school should issue a formal retraction of the Facebook statement, because it damages the reputation of BASD, especially given the importance of tax revenue on district projects such as the Nitschmann replacement. Board President Michael Faccinetto added his disapproval that a LVCHSA board director would be so unaware of a financial decision of that magnitude.

The final topic of discussion, is a matter the BASD has referred to the State Auditor General, and is still awaiting a formal decision. The BASD solicitor believes that LVCHSA did not properly bid the construction of their building, as would be required under the Pennsylvania Public School code. LVCHSA disagrees and believes that they followed all of the stated rules for construction bidding under the Pennsylvania charter school laws. Due to the complexity of the issue, the matter was submitted to the auditor general for a more in depth determination than the district would be able to provide. The final issue, which Dr. Roy spoke briefly about, was the indication of a potential conflict of interest in the construction bidding process. BASD contends that when LVCHSA purchased the property for their building, there was a portion of the money still due to the seller at the construction contract was awarded. It appears to BASD that the seller and the construction company share an unnamed director or owner. LVCHSA denied any knowledge that the two companies shared any leadership, to which Dr. Roy responded that he was able to very easily look that public information up to confirm it. He then declined to discuss the issue further, as the final determination from the auditor general is pending, but he summarized that LVCHSA is “publicly funded, must act as a public entity.”

The discussion concluded with Faccinetto recommending that the approval of the charter be pulled from vote at the November board meeting, to allow for the completion of the auditor general report. As of now, the recommendation that the charter itself be renewed is not changing, however the district would like to hold that recommendation until Spring, in hopes that the auditor generals report will conclude the outstanding disputes between the two parties.