School lockdown: PA Cyber Charter owes the public some answers

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Just because one facet of a public school is under investigation doesn't mean its officials are off the hook on answering questions about other operations.

Yet that's the attitude of Robert E. Stewart, the attorney representing the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in a federal grand jury investigation believed to be focused on former executives of the school. He has barred its spokeswoman from responding to questions from the Post-Gazette about paid consulting work done by PA Cyber's CEO.

At issue is moonlighting done by CEO Michael J. Conti when he was PA Cyber's director of administrative services. As reported by the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord last Sunday, Mr. Conti encouraged his leadership team in May 2010 to list five to 10 of the online school's employees for possible selection and entry in a new master's degree program in online instruction offered by Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Eventually about 140 employees of PA Cyber would seek the degree. The tuition was paid by the charter school, which gets almost all of its funding from the public school districts in which its students live.

When the program got rolling in 2011, Mr. Conti began to wear a second hat -- as a paid consultant to Avanti Management Group, a firm run by former colleagues to help shape and manage the master's program. As a PA Cyber administrator, Mr. Conti urged his workers to enroll in the program, which received at least $1 million in payments from his school. As an Avanti consultant who was paid $2,000 a month for 14 months, he encouraged Franciscan University to move ahead with the master's initiative and at one point sought payment of Avanti's bill.

Not surprisingly, the notion of a side job for a ranking school official on a program involving his school drew reactions of concern from education authorities quoted in the Post-Gazette. The head of the American Association of School Administrators said such a situation "certainly is questionable." A charter school scholar at Harvard University said Mr. Conti's arrangement "sounds too close to the line."

Although the arrangement has at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, the attorney for the public school will allow no one to clear the air, saying the school is aiding federal investigators and "will have no part in providing any information to anyone else, that in any way could impact the investigation."

But a taxpayer-funded school, like PA Cyber Charter, owes Pennsylvanians accountability and transparency in every aspect of its work and spending -- whether the U.S. attorney's office is investigating or not.

It's time for this public school to answer the public's questions.

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