2 Pittsburgh-area charter schools to move forward on own
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Two charter schools have parted ways this summer with management companies that have been part of the schools since their founding.
The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, which opened in 2008, no longer has a management contract with Imagine Schools, which is based in Arlington, Va.
The PA Distance Learning Charter School, which started in 2004, has ended its contract with White Hat, based in Akron, Ohio.
Jon McCann, CEO and founding principal of the Environmental Charter School, said the school now is independent.
He said Imagine Schools "provided foundational support for us early in our existence," but the "relationship matured, and we've decided at that point it was best to move forward on our own."
He said the school in the early days "needed lots of support. As we matured and grew, that need for support lessened."
Imagine's name appeared in the school's old logo and some now-outdated variations of the school name.
In an email, Mubuso Zamchiya, regional director for Imagine Schools, said the parting was mutual.
He said he is confident the school's leadership "will be successful in growing the school and meeting the learning needs of children and the expectations and aspirations of their parents."
At PA Distance Learning Charter School based in Franklin Park, CEO James Hoover said, "We felt we could do better on our own."
The school has about 350 students registered for fall.
With White Hat, Mr. Hoover said, "I knew very little about monies that were being spent and where they were being spent. To be honest with you, it made me very uncomfortable."
White Hat could not be reached for comment.
At the Environmental Charter School, which expects 547 students this fall, Mr. McCann said the resources that were spent on the management fee can be redirected to help students.
According to the IRS 990 form filed by the school for 2009-10, the Environmental Charter School had $4.5 million in expenses, including $547,766 for a management fee to Imagine Schools.
The school also paid $542,946 that year for a lease on the building from Schoolhouse Finance, an arm of Imagine Schools. Mr. Zamchiya said the lease does not include utilities but does include the cost of renovations.
Ownership of the Regent Square building was transferred last month to Entertainment Properties Trust. The county website lists the owner as Education Capital Solutions, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Entertainment Properties Trust. The county lists the sales price as $10 on each of two parcels.
Mr. Zamchiya said the charter school continues as a tenant under the same terms.
Schoolhouse Finance bought the former Regent Square School from Pittsburgh Public Schools for $3 million in 2006. Taxes are paid on the property, which is assessed at $1.1 million.
Mr. McCann said the end of the management agreement with Imagine was not related to controversy surrounding Imagine Schools in other parts of the country.
The Missouri Board of Education, for example, shut down six Imagine charter schools for 2012-13 because of questions about finances and academic performance.
The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park has made adequate yearly progress, known as AYP, every year since its opening, including 2012, Mr. McCann said.
AYP considers math and reading, but school officials also noted high science scores, with 92 percent of students tested scoring proficient or advanced in science.
The school is so popular that more than 400 students are on a waiting list for this fall. The school, which this fall is adding a grade to serve K-7, also is opening a second building, the renovated former Park Place School, which will house grades K-3. Grades 4-7 will remain in the original building. The following year, the school will be complete when grade 8 is added.
The former Park Place School, which had been converted to apartments, was recorded with the county as sold to Park Place School Associates for $920,000 and a few weeks later was recorded again for a sale to a company called PPPD LLC for nearly $1.87 million. Taxes are paid on an assessed value of $920,000.
Mr. McCann will serve in a CEO role, and two new principals have been hired: Tawana Cook, formerly director of the lower school at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C., and Stephen Pellathy, who served as science coordinator for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The school's most recent annual report to the state listed several instructional components, including the Imagine Schools' National Curriculum.
Nikole Brugnoli Sheaffer, academic director at the Environmental Charter School, said the Imagine Schools curriculum had provided a baseline framework, but the school has refined -- and continues to develop -- its own curriculum.
On its website, Imagine Schools lists 70 schools, including Imagine Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship -- the only other Imagine school in Pennsylvania -- which opened last fall.
White Hat's website states it operates 33 schools in three states. There has been some controversy in Ohio over what financial information should be released.
The IRS 990 for 2009-10 for PA Distance Learning Charter School states the school used White Hat for "substantially all functions except employment of the school's staff."
The management contract called for 97 percent of "qualified gross revenues less employment costs" to go to the management company, according to the IRS filing.
The IRS form showed the school had expenditures of $4.49 million, with nearly $2.47 million going to White Hat.
When White Hat and the cyberschool ended their agreement, Mr. Hoover said, "The office furniture we had and the computers the kids had were all paid by taxpayer dollars, yet we had to buy those things back from White Hat, which we chose not to do."
The school, which did not make AYP in 2011, now has new student computers, new office furniture and a new office a short distance from the old one.
Mr. Hoover sees separate venders as an advantage.
"It's a lot harder when you have a management company supplying all the services. If you're not happy with it, you can't just fire the IT part," he said.
First Published August 20, 2012 12:00 am