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Group challenges scope of Chester charter school

CHESTER Over the last 15 years, Chester Community Charter School has grown so rapidly that it educates more students - about 3,000 - than the cash-strapped traditional classrooms in the surrounding Chester Upland School District.

CHESTER Over the last 15 years, Chester Community Charter School has grown so rapidly that it educates more students - about 3,000 - than the cash-strapped traditional classrooms in the surrounding Chester Upland School District.

But a group of residents troubled by the charter's rapid growth are questioning whether the privately managed, taxpayer-funded school, which runs from kindergarten through eighth grade, has the legal authority to teach children beyond fourth grade.

The seeds of the dispute emerged in August, when the state auditor general reported that there was no evidence that Chester Community's original charter had been updated since being authorized in 1998 for grades K-4.

The school and the district dispute the assertion. They contend the Chester Upland school board has reviewed and renewed the charter three times since 2001.

But the group, Concerned Citizens for Chester's Children, says it has been pressing local and state officials for proof for months - yet received none.

"If the school has expanded without following state law, how come no one can answer that question?" asked group member Joan Duvall-Flynn, who also chairs the education committee for the Pennsylvania NAACP. "What we want to know is, did CCCS go through the legal process or are children in an unauthorized setting . . . and should taxpayers be continuing to pay for a school setting that is not legally authorized?"

Not until this week, they say, did Chester Upland officials issue a response, suggesting that the auditor general's report was misleading and that records might have been lost.

Becky Taylor, a district spokeswoman, said Tuesday that Joe Watkins, the state-appointed chief recovery officer for the troubled district, was looking into the allegations raised in the audit. She said Watkins had reached out to the state Department of Education.

A day later, Watkins issued a statement saying "I consider the matter closed" after a local lawyer whom he asked to investigate concluded that CCCS was in compliance.

Watkins declined to be interviewed. Taylor said he would provide documents on the issue to the community activists on Friday.

The lawyer, Robert DiOrio, said in his report that the school renewed its charter in 2001, 2006, and 2011 to teach grades K-8, "the specific details of which obviously were reviewed and approved by the school board."

In an interview, DiOrio said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale's critique of CCCS had nothing to do with its failure to secure authorization, only that it hadn't revised its original charter to include that information.

But DePasquale said this week his meaning was clear - CCCS did not provide any evidence that its charter had been amended to add grades, students, and campuses.

"Whether these were discussed or not discussed [with the school board], however that may be, for our purposes there's no evidence in writing of changes to the charter," he said in an interview.

DePasquale sent his report to the Department of Education, which is responsible for enforcing regulations governing charters.

A spokesman for the Department of Education did not respond to Inquirer requests for information.

In an Oct. 31 letter to the district, Francis J. Catania, a lawyer for the charter school, said that DePasquale's allegations were "erroneous" and that the district had authorized Chester Community to expand.

"The auditor general's recent suggestion that CCCS is somehow not authorized to serve grades K-8 is plainly absurd," he wrote.

The question over its authorization is the latest controversy for CCCS, which has grown exponentially since its founding in 1998 by Vahan Gureghian, a Gladwyne lawyer and major donor to Gov. Corbett and the Republican Party.

In 2012, standardized test scores at CCCS plummeted after the state investigated testing irregularities, although no action was taken. In August, DePasquale's 76-page report was highly critical of the charter and said it had received $1.2 million in improper lease-reimbursement payments, among other infractions.

He noted that CCCS management said the district had been informed of any changes to its charter. But the school failed to provide evidence of that, or of any policies that spell out how it informs the district of changes.

Under state law, charter schools are overseen by local school boards, which can approve or deny a charter application and must authorize any changes to the grade configuration.

DePasquale said that deficiencies in the school's charter and renewals "limit its authorizing school district's ability to maintain appropriate oversight."

School board director Bettie McClairen filed a right-to-know request with Watkins, who was hired in August 2012 after running the pro-voucher, pro-privatization Students First PAC and once worked as a consultant to Chester Community.

"That school [CCCS] does not have any oversight," McClairen said.

Another board member, Anthony Johnson, said the problem may be that the district, which was under state control for most of the last decade, cannot find the paperwork because of its many administrative changes.

The activists, however, say they still do not have proof that the charter is in compliance.

"I am paying taxes for support of a school that has a very long history of problems," said Willard Richan, a longtime education watchdog and member of the group.

Charter schools like CCCS get reimbursed on a per-student basis. CCCS, the biggest school in the district, has 3,054 students. Other district charters have a combined 1,407 students, while 2,924 students are enrolled in traditional public schools.