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Gov. Tom Wolf and Republicans reach a deal to revive a powerful Pa. charter-school panel

One of Wolf’s nominees to the Charter Appeals Board is drawing criticism for her connection to a Republican political donor.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's nomination of Jennifer Faustman (center) CEO of Belmont Charter Schools, to the state's Charter Appeals Board has drawn criticism because the charter network's founder, Michael Karp, is a Republican campaign donor.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's nomination of Jennifer Faustman (center) CEO of Belmont Charter Schools, to the state's Charter Appeals Board has drawn criticism because the charter network's founder, Michael Karp, is a Republican campaign donor.Read moreDavid Maialetti / File Photograph

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and state Senate Republicans have reached a deal on reviving a powerful panel that can overturn local decisions to reject new charter schools or close existing ones.

But the Charter Appeals Board, which Wolf disbanded in April amid a broader dispute with lawmakers, still faces challenges. If the governor’s four nominees are confirmed by the Senate and it resumes operations, two vacant seats will remain. And one of the nominees is drawing criticism for her connection to a Republican political donor.

Jennifer Faustman, CEO of Belmont Charter Schools in Philadelphia, was nominated on June 14. Less than three weeks earlier, a company run by the charter network’s founder, Michael Karp, donated $50,000 to the campaign committee for Senate Republicans, who have the power to confirm or reject her nomination.

Faustman’s nomination “gives the appearance of a quid pro quo, which could diminish public trust in the impartiality of the CAB’s future decisions,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, an advocacy group that supports public schools and has been backing Wolf’s push to curb charter funding.

State Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said Faustman’s nomination raises “red flags.”

“Whenever campaign contributions come up in this context, you have to worry about a pay-to-play situation,” said Williams, who planned to meet this week with Faustman and the other nominees to ask about their qualifications and when they would recuse themselves from decisions.

Karp is a West Philadelphia landlord who, along with his company, University City Housing, has given hundreds of thousands to Pennsylvania lawmakers in recent years — the majority of it to Republicans. He said he had “absolutely no participation in the decision — or even any awareness — that they were going to reactivate the Appeals Board and appoint people to it.”

“Once that decision was made — totally unbeknownst to me that any of that was happening —Jennifer’s name did then come up as a possible appointee,” Karp said in an email Tuesday. Karp said that it’s “unlikely” the Belmont charters would appear before the board but that Faustman “of course would recuse in that unlikely event.”

» READ MORE: Disputes between charter schools and districts are in limbo as the Pa. Charter Appeals Board sits vacant

The board hears disputes between school districts and charters, which are publicly funded but independently run. Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said Faustman was nominated “at the request of Senate Republicans.” She would fill the seat designated for a parent of a school-aged child.

“A bipartisan compromise is necessary for the CAB to do its job after years of stagnant membership,” Kensinger said. “Nominations can only be confirmed with advise and consent of the Senate, which plays an active role in negotiating such nominations with the administration.”

The Senate plans to take up the nominations this week. Asked whether Republicans had suggested Faustman and about the timing of the donation from Karp’s company, a top Senate spokesperson called the question “odd” and “impossible to answer.”

The Senate “is moving nominees forward that were agreed upon in a bipartisan manner,” said Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland). She said Senate Republicans support Wolf’s new nominations.

In a statement, Faustman said she looked forward “to bringing my decades of experience and perspective to this work and advocating for high-quality education for all Pennsylvania students.”

The other nominees are Tom Killion, a former Republican state senator from Delaware County; Jodi Schwartz, a Central Bucks school board member; and Stacey Marten, a Lancaster County public school teacher.

Many districts have bristled at the board’s power to determine which schools operate in their communities — decisions affecting thousands of students and millions of taxpayer dollars. Charter schools see it as a necessary check on districts that may issue unfair judgments against them, given that charters draw from district enrollments and budgets.

Its membership has been a battle lately. The board was long filled by appointees of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, all serving expired terms.

Wolf, a Democrat who first took office in 2015, notified members in April that their time was up. He nominated five new members, but then withdrew them from consideration. Marten and Schwartz were among the original nominees.

Faustman and Killion were new nominees last week.

“We’re not trying to grease the courts” but ensure fairness, said Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “I’m optimistic that we can all move through the process collaboratively.”

Faustman is “uniquely qualified” to serve on the board, Karp said, given her role overseeing the Belmont charter network — it operates two of Philadelphia’s 86 charters. He also noted that she has two children enrolled in the Haverford School District.

“She understands the full needs of children, both academically and in terms of reaching students where they are,” Karp said.

In 2019, Belmont Charter in West Philadelphia was the only school in Pennsylvania to be designated an “innovation school” under a change to state law the charter had sought. The previous year, Karp donated at least $360,000 to various Pennsylvania Republican campaigns and political groups, according to state campaign-finance filings.

The state Department of Education did not respond to a question this week about whether the charter network sought any waivers from regulations as a result of the designation, which the law allows. Karp didn’t respond to a question about the designation Tuesday.

If Wolf’s four nominees are confirmed, they still won’t fill the six-seat board, which had one vacancy even before disbanding. It has at times lacked the votes to decide cases as members recused themselves from certain cases.

Spicka, of Education Voters PA, questioned whether the board will face more delays if Faustman has to recuse herself given her role as a charter CEO.

Kensinger said the board, which also includes the state education secretary, will be able to operate if Wolf’s nominees are confirmed.