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John B. Stetson Middle School in North Philadelphia. — COURTESY OF GREATSCHOOLS.ORG

To ensure financial accountability for all public schools and protect Pennsylvania taxpayers, state Rep. James Roebuck this week continued his push for legislation that would prohibit anyone who serves as a school director, founder, member of a board of trustees or administrator of any public-school entity — including a school district, charter school or cyber charter school — from receiving reimbursements on lease payments for buildings or facilities used for a charter school.

The prohibition would also include executives or employees of charter school management companies, said Roebuck, D-188.

He said the most recent state audit of Aspira Inc.’s management of charter schools proves that charter school reform is crucial in Pennsylvania.

The audit, released this week, said that a lack of governance by charter school boards allowed the Philadelphia-based Aspira Inc. to manage public funds without sufficient accountability.

Aspira operates five Philadelphia schools and, late last year, the School Reform Commission voted to rescind charters for John B. Stetson Middle School and Olney High School.

The audit released by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s office also concluded that reduced revenues, persistent operating deficits, poor cash flow and overspent budgets reportedly caused the charter schools’ combined general fund balance to plummet from $7.7 million in 2014 to $419,000 in 2016.

Auditors also found a poor organization structure, weak management agreements, a lack of board oversight, and little documentation to support charges to the schools.

“Over the three-year review period, Aspira Inc. managed $150 million in public school revenues with little to no oversight,” DePasquale said in the audit’s summary.

The audit findings “mirror what I’ve been saying all along, that charter schools lack financial accountability,” said Roebuck, the Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee. “The legislation I introduced last year would specifically address the core problems found in this report while protecting taxpayer dollars.”

Roebuck’s bill, HB 1199, takes aim at conflicts of interest in tax-funded payments for charter school leases.

The auditor general’s office previously identified millions of dollars in questionable lease reimbursements to charter schools, he said.

Roebuck said his legislation was in response to concerns about lease overpayments to charter schools.

Since December 2012, the Department of the Auditor General has found that the Department of Education has approved and paid $1.8 million in lease reimbursements to seven charter schools.

The payments were made despite questions about whether the reimbursements were permitted under the Public School Code and Department of Education guidelines — specifically, that state lease reimbursements to charter schools are prohibited for facilities owned by individuals or entities related to the school, the audit found.

As recently as August 2016, the auditor general highlighted more than $2.5 million in questionable lease reimbursements to nine charter schools, Roebuck said.

He said his proposal would require school officials, in their application for funding for lease reimbursements, to give the Department of Education copies of the signed lease agreement and the deed for the leased building.

“The original intent of the charter school law that passed in 1997 was to encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods and to improve student learning that could be replicated by other public schools,” Roebuck said.

“Essentially, charter school entities were intended to be innovative labs of learning where teachers and administrators, not bound by the same federal and state academic mandates as regular public schools, could significantly improve student learning. The law specifically states that charter schools are to ‘serve as a model for other public schools,’” he said.

To improve the existing charter school law, Roebuck said he believes it is necessary to further explore the best practices of high-performing charter school entities and the unsuccessful practices of low-performing and closed charter school entities across the state.

“That’s why it’s important for the State Board of Education to conduct this comprehensive study, so that we can learn from our best charter school entities about those different and innovative teaching methods that can improve student learning and increase learning opportunities in all public schools for all of our students,” he said.

Contact Johann Calhoun at newseditor@phillytrib.com or call at (215) 893-5739

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