Tears and cheers BASD holds second LV Academy hearing
The school board held its second hearing of Lehigh Valley Academy’s request for a new charter Jan. 30, airing concerns about financing, legislative risk, construction delays, and safety issues. Attorney Allison Petersen of The Levin Group conducted the meeting on behalf of the board. LVA was represented by CEO Susan Mauser, Board President Martin Smith, and attorney Kevin McKenna.
Board members Dr. Karen Beck Pooley, Dr. Dean Donaher, Mike Faccinetto, Craig Neiman, Shannon Patrick, Dr. Kim Shively, and Angela Sinkler were present, as well as district officials. Dozens of LVA faculty members and parents were in the auditorium. All board members, including those not in attendance, received a transcript of the hearing and a copy of all materials related to the LVA application.
Building and land costs
Petersen posed questions on behalf of BASD. Two district concerns that emerged early were financing and construction feasibility.
Mauser confirmed that the new facility is anticipated to be operational for the 2022-23 school year and projected that the total cost (land purchase plus construction) will be roughly $70 million. However, details from a Dec. 17 LVA board of trustees meeting emerged, indicating that land and construction costs will be closer to $73 million, and that LVA will have additional rental costs during the construction.
Mauser then indicated that the bond to be issued by LVA is likely to be in the neighborhood of $80 million.
Bethlehem Township is the authority for land development on the parcel in question. Smith said that LVA submitted a sketch plan to the township in 2019, and that he anticipates LVA’s engineers submitting a preliminary plan in February. Petersen pressed him to confirm that Bethlehem Township has not yet approved the project.
Low rate of IB
One of the key differentiators for LVA –in its marketing materials and in the comments by many LVA parents at the first hearing – is that it is “the only IB world school in Pennsylvania.” However, the vast majority of LVA students do not earn an IB diploma.
In addition to coursework, passing scores on six different exams are required to earn an IB diploma. Mauser confirmed that students are not required to take any IB exams to graduate. Of the 68 students in the class of 2019, only 25 took all six IB exams, and only five passed them all and earned the IB diploma.
LVA program coordinator Andrew Hall was unable to state how many students took at least one exam, but Mauser did confirm that there were students who did not take any of the IB exams. She offered to find out how many students and get back to the board.
Although Mauser repeatedly compared the IB exams to Advanced Placement (AP) exams taken by some public school students, there is a fundamental distinction between the two: AP exams represent whether the student has demonstrated college-level proficiency in a subject; IB exams relate to high school coursework for a specialized high school diploma.
Petersen asked whether increasing IB diploma attainment was a stated goal of the existing charter school, and Mauser said it was not.
Petersen also questioned the LVA representatives regarding the placement tests currently in use for students applying to enter seventh and eighth grade. Students take math and English language arts (ELA) assessments prior to matriculation. Mauser stressed that these are not entrance exams that can be used to deny admission, but placement tests to determine the appropriate grade level for the students. “It’s not used to determine whether they may enroll,” she said, “It’s used for placement. After that, it’s up to the parents what they want to do.”
However, some parents apparently walk away from LVA when their children place at a grade level lower than a grade they’ve already completed, effectively making the placement tests a proxy for admissions exams.
District expresses financial and safety concerns
Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy and Chief Financial Officer Stacy Gober presented the district’s administrative review of the application. Both indicated serious concerns about the financial risk of an $80 million bond – to which there is apparently a less expensive alternative – and transportation and traffic safety issues at the proposed new location.
Gober informed the attendees that PennCap, which currently rents the facility at 1560 Valley Center Parkway to LVA, is willing to sell LVA this space currently being rented, in addition to green space, for $46 million.
Gober also noted that an $80 million, 35-year bond would be the largest borrowing in Pa. charter school history. Lease payments on the current property are $3.96 million; the annual debt service on an $80 million bond would be $1 million more than that.
Additionally, Gober cited the Local Government Unit Debt Act (LGUDA), which – if applied to LVA – would limit the amount borrowed to roughly $50 million, based on the past three years of revenues. Although charter schools are not required to comply with LGUDA, Gober suggested that it would fiscally irresponsible to exceed its constraints by such a wide margin. She also noted that LVA has not provided information as to whether it has received a credit rating for the bond it hopes to issue to fund the new campus purchase and development.
Gober raised questions about LVA’s ability to pay the increased costs – including maintenance, utilities, and insurance – associated with operating the proposed larger facility. Next, she noted the legislative risk LVA faces; officials in Harrisburg have discussed potential changes to the charter school funding formula, which could happen in the next few years, while LVA will be paying debt service on any bond issued for decades.
Gober also noted that BASD is “challenged to evaluate” the new charter request, in light of the “minimal detail” about the land purchase and construction and uncertainties that exist with respect to construction approval by Bethlehem Township. She noted that “BASD would be negligent if it approved only a concept design of a new school,” noting that when LVA finalizes the details, they may be inappropriate or inconsistent with the charter.
Finally, Gober pointed out that over 35 years, many structural elements of the proposed new building are likely to fail, and that it’s unclear whether LVA will be approved to borrow additional money to perform needed maintenance.
Dr. Roy shared additional concerns about transportation safety, including potential challenges to road widening on Brodhead and Hecktown Roads, and the absence of a secondary egress for emergencies. He also noted that the proposed location is near one of the most accident-challenged intersections (Routes 22 and 191) in the Lehigh Valley, and that substantial bus and parent traffic will use this intersection. Roy asserted that the new charter application is premature, given that the existing charter is not at its expiration date, LVA has not secured financing or Bethlehem Township approval of construction plans, and a lack of contingency plans to handle construction delays.
Mauser reiterated LVA’s ambition to buy roughly 55 acres of land and shared demographic information about the current student body. She noted challenges with the current facility, focusing on its gym, which has a lower roof than a full-sized gym, and its relative lack of green space. She also said that LVA would like to move its middle-school grades into their own building, which would be difficult in the current facility.
She noted that the new facility, as currently imagined, will provide 20,000 additional square feet, better acoustics, and green space. She shared a basic layout of one of the proposed buildings.
Mauser also presented information regarding LVA’s application vis-à-vis the Pa. charter application law that was similar in content to the material she presented at the first hearing in December.
Public comment split
Once again, several parents offered public comment; however, this time, both LVA and public school parents spoke up.
Parent Jennifer Pagliaroli asserted that “all the ‘what-ifs’ have been covered” by LVA. Mike Rulli feigned awe at the East Hills MS auditorium as he mock-staggered and repeatedly said, “Wow!” Rulli said he had been to “all the elementary schools” and stated that “they all have better facilities” than LVA; this stands in contrast to the information on facilities challenges – including ADA compliance issues and a lack of walls separating classrooms – at William Penn, Thomas Jefferson, and Fountain Hill ES presented by Chief Facilities Officer Mark Stein at the facilities committee meeting in Nov. 2019.
One tearful parent accused the board of “playing the blame game” and “hating on school choice” on social media.
Mrs. Blevins, a parent of four BASD students, praised the district’s public schools for welcoming all of her children, including one with special needs. She expressed surprise (“Wow!”) that LVA was considering an $80 million bond in light of the opportunity to buy the current property from PennCap for $46 million.
Dr. Tricia Moller expressed safety and cost concerns about the proposed new location. “Over time, you’re using tuition [paying off the bond], which comes from the district, which comes from taxpayer dollars,” she said. “If you can’t pay the total,” she asked, “who’s responsible for that debt? This does not seem responsible for the education of all our children.”
Another BASD resident came forward to state his view that the school board was elected to be stewards of taxpayer dollars collected for education, and asserted that the ever-increasing cost estimates of the proposed new facility would make approving the request an irresponsible decision.
A proud mother of three South Side students cited the district’s fiduciary responsibility and her own “global experience within the BASD,” sharing that “My children have had a wonderful experience at Donegan Elementary School and Broughal Middle School.”
Josh Kunsman, a Fountain Hill resident, pointed out that there are BASD schools in need of repair. “We’re not just talking about East Hills and Liberty and Nitschmann here,” he said. “We can spread $80 million around.”
A graduate of East Hills MS, whose son currently attends the school, commented, “You’re thinking, ‘Wow’ and you think it’s great? Our doors are always open, and we’re happy to take you. My son has flourished here.”
The final comment came from resident Elliott Tracey, who pointed out, “There’s a lot of commonality in us wanting to do the best by our students.” However, he said, “I have absolute hesitation about [what was proposed tonight]: unsecured debt going off into the next three and a half decades.” He pointed out that “school choice is an option here in Bethlehem – you can open-enroll.” He observed that “we’ve got an obligation to everyone,” and suggested that LVA isn’t meeting that obligation.
LVA is permitted to submit a concluding document to the board by Feb. 12. The board’s vote on the application will likely take place on or about Feb. 24.