Posted on Sat, May. 2, 2009

Lawmaker calls for overhaul of charter law

By Martha Woodall
Inquirer Staff Writer

The chairman of the state Senate Education Committee said yesterday that allegations of the misuse of millions in public money by a Devon cyber charter school "further underscore" the need to overhaul the state's charter law.

"I will not stand by and accept this type of abuse of public trust," said Sen. Jeffry E. Piccola (R., Dauphin), a staunch charter supporter and one of the sponsors of the state's 1997 charter law.

He said he was troubled by allegations detailed in a state Department of Education lawsuit that the Agora Cyber Charter School's board of trustees had engaged in fraud by allowing millions of dollars in taxpayer money to benefit a company owned by the school's founder, Dorothy June Brown.

Brown has declined to comment.

Howard Lebofsky, chairman of the board, has also declined to comment on the lawsuit. He noted that the school's contract with the management company Cynwyd Group L.L.C. was signed before he joined the board last summer.

The civil complaint maintains that the board of trustees entered into unlawful contracts with Cynwyd. The state also claims that Cynwyd was created by Brown and her partner "for the purpose of making money from managing and operating the school." Cynwyd was to collect $2.8 million from Agora this academic year, although the state said most of the management work was done by another company.

The school remains open, but the state is withholding money, which it has put into an escrow account.

The state has asked the court to appoint an independent trustee or receiver to oversee the school in place of the board of trustees.

A hearing on the state's request was scheduled for May 6 in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg.

Meanwhile, K-12 Pennsylvania L.L.C., the company that delivers the school's education program, has sent letters to Agora families to assure them that their children's education will not be interrupted. K-12 wrote that it would pay teachers and staff.

Agora, which opened in 2005, enrolls 4,400 students from districts across the state. The students receive online instruction at home.

Based on current enrollment, Agora officials projected the charter's revenue would total about $41 million in taxpayer money this school year. Cynwyd's management contract calls for it to be paid 7 percent of gross revenue, which comes to $2.9 million. Among the state's allegations is that K-12 performed most of the school's management work.

Cynwyd Group also owns the school's offices on Chestnut Street in Devon and collects $300,000 in annual rent, which the state maintains is above market value.

Agora's finances also are being investigated by federal authorities as part of a widening criminal probe of charter schools and by the Philadelphia School District's inspector general.

Piccola, the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, said that he was especially concerned about the allegations of excessive spending and that Agora was paying for services the management company had not provided.

"I think it is important that if there is a bad apple in our charter school community it has to be removed," he said. "The charter school movement is a good movement and needs to maintain its credibility."

He said the allegations against Agora reinforced his decision to make a comprehensive reworking of the state charter laws one of his top legislative priorities.

His committee held a hearing in March to consider possible changes to the state's 1997 charter law and to a 2002 law that made the state Department of Education responsible for overseeing the state's 11 cyber charters.

Piccola said the committee would hold a broader educational hearing in Philadelphia on June 5 that would not only consider proposed amendments to the charter laws but examine the Philadelphia School District's experiment with schools run by outside managers.

 Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

Home Index