Application, reapplication from charter school denied in Sto-Rox

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For more than a year, those with a vested interest in the future of Sto-Rox have been on a roller coaster ride of emotions as district officials faced the decision of whether to grant an application by Propel Schools to open a charter school in the district.

The charter application and its subsequent reapplication have now both been denied by the school district.

Many saw and still see the charter application as a death knell for the financially and performance-challenged district while others find the opportunity for choice a welcome and refreshing change.

The charter application calls for the operation of a K-12 school with an eventual enrollment of 800.

Sto-Rox has an enrollment of about 1,400 students.

According to Propel officials, 173 students from McKees Rocks and Stowe already attend one of Propel's nine schools, with an additional 134 on waiting lists.

With the school board's second unanimous rejection of the Propel West application last Thursday, Jeremy Resnick, executive director and founder of Propel, said he will appeal his charter request to the Pennsylvania Charter Appeal Board.

Propel has had five charters rejected by school boards and each has been approved through the appeal process.

Superintendent Michael Panza made lengthy presentations to the board prior to the first charter vote in November 2011 and the reapplication vote last Thursday about why the district should reject the application.

"I don't know that I am going to [win]," Mr. Panza said of the appeal.

"When we go to the charter appeal board, I am going to present facts."

In an email Monday, Mr. Resnick questioned many of what he called "outrageous and patently false claims" made during Mr. Panza's presentation.

"I didn't throw anything against the wall," Mr. Panza said. "I stood in front of what was a very intelligent crowd and spoke the truth."

Mr. Panza said he would like to talk to the appeal board about "when the system crashes" and 200 employees will no longer have jobs.

He also wants to know what will happen to the students Propel does not take.

Elizabeth Smith, Sto-Rox board president, said she hopes the state has reservations on approving the application because of the possibility of Sto-Rox becoming further impoverished.

Last Thursday, Mr. Panza said the creation of Propel West will "bankrupt this district leaving the department of education to deal with the students outcast by this situation."

The consideration of Propel's charter resubmission had been delayed from July 19 to Sept. 20 so both parties could discuss cooperation and ideas.

Mr. Panza and four school directors sat down with Propel officials four times over the two month period.

"Those meetings made me feel hopeful that we could come to some resolution as to how we could work together," said Derric Heck, director of strategic initiatives with Propel. Sto-Rox officials also felt "talks were going well."

Propel offered to make concessions to the charter application in a Sept. 13 letter to Sto-Rox including limiting the number of students to 420 instead of 800 and starting with just 300 students.

A limit to the grade span from K-8 instead of K-12 was also offered, with a cap to limit the number of Sto-Rox students for the first three years to two-thirds of the total population.

"Propel makes this concession because we recognize the difficulty for the district in maintaining a viable high school program if enrollment dips far below 400 students," the letter stated.

Annual contributions to a "Community/School Improvement Fund" in the amount of $690,000 the first year and $280,000 in subsequent years was also offered by Propel.

A request for the use of a district building with Propel paying for the cost of utilities, maintenance and cleaning was requested.

Propel estimates annual expenditures of about $300,000 would be saved by Sto-Rox in doing so.

The middle school building on Ewing Road in Kennedy was cited by district officials as Propel's preferred location with Sto-Rox using the elementary school as a K-8 location.

"At this time we still do not believe we can provide you the middle school building as a place to educate students," Mr. Panza's Sept. 14 response letter states.

This letter additionally asks for an extension of the time line and the possibility of another meeting in an "open format" prior to any vote.

Further extensions were denied.

"We just have so many families that want a school. We've had a year, we just moved forward. Families really want a Propel option." said Carol Wooten, superintendent and chief executive officer for Propel. "Maybe somewhere down the road, there is grounds for conversation."

education - neigh_west

Sonja Reis, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com


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