Saved by the bell? Phone call confusion scuttles state board’s vote on Reading charter school

The Charter Appeals Board. February 25, 2020 (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison).

An arts-based charter school that’s fought a years-long battle to open its doors in Reading may live to see another day, despite vocal concerns from Pennsylvania’s top education official that it can’t ensure transparent contracts or complete “the most rudimentary” components of a charter application.   

The Berks Charter High School for Performing & Visual Arts, which hopes to open in the Reading School District this fall, asked the state Charter School Appeal Board on Tuesday to overturn its 2018 denial by the Reading School Board, which found fault with almost every aspect of the school’s application. 

The appeals board moved to deny the application after more than an hour of debate in the Department of Education Headquarters in downtown Harrisburg. 

But the vote failed because two members were no longer responding to the conference call that they were using to attend the meeting. 

It’s unclear if, when, or why board member Scott Miller and vice-chair Lee Ann Munger fully dropped out of the meeting. But neither one responded when the board secretary called a roll call vote, or when the board counsel tried to confirm their attendance during a five-minute recess.

Even with three other members voting to deny the appeal, and one member abstaining, the board did not have the quorum necessary for the action to stand. 

The charter school’s attorney, Brian Leinhauser, said the snafu “could theoretically” allow his client to submit a new appeal, if the board lost its quorum during oral arguments.

For now, the case is tabled until the board’s next meeting, scheduled for April 14 in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania’s Charter School Appeal Board, comprised of six appointed members and state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, can overturn decisions by locally elected school board members to deny or not renew a charter school application. 

The board was asked to weigh in on the Berks performing arts school after the Reading School Board voted unanimously to reject it in 2018. 

Board members said the charter school did not have a sufficient show of community support or proof that it could sustain its enrollment, according to a 67-page memo explaining the denial. 

An attorney for the district also said Tuesday that its arts-based curriculum and plans for English language learners were “woefully inadequate.” 

The Berks Charter school is being spearheaded by Thomas Lubben, a consultant who has founded four other charter schools in Pennsylvania, Leinhauser said Tuesday. 

Lubben is not slated to take on any leadership roles or board positions if school opens its doors, but one version of his charter application listed his consulting firm, TLC Arts, as the recipient of a $48,000 contract for consulting services.

That proposed transaction gave Rivera pause on Tuesday. The education secretary asked Lubben and his attorney to clarify what services Lubben would provide to the school, and whether or not he could receive taxpayer-funded contracts if it opened its doors.

Pennsylvania law requires charter applicants to disclose any contracts they intend to sign with private management companies, which help the publicly funded schools run their day-to-day operations. 

But Leinhauser said that provision didn’t apply to Lubben, since his consulting firm “does not manage any charter schools.”

Leinhauser added that his client couldn’t possibly disclose all his potential business interests, since he could not anticipate all the services he might provide to the school.

“I can’t say Lubben will have nothing to do with our school going forward,” Leinhauser said, arguing that its independent board has sole authority to hire vendors.

Those distinctions didn’t sway Rivera, who said that any potential for Lubben to profit from a school he founded should be in full, public view before that school opens its doors. 

“I don’t want to [be in] a position where you have just created yourself a job on the backs of Reading School District taxpayers,” Rivera told the charter founder.

Rivera also took issue with the school’s failure to amend aspects of its application that the Reading School Board criticized. Among them was a provision in the board’s bylaws allowing its members to meet outside of Pennsylvania, potentially in violation of the state’s open meetings laws. 

After taking issue with the school’s enrollment policy, which did not propose using a lottery to enroll students from a waiting list, as is common among most public charter schools in Pennsylvania, Rivera said he felt compelled to “express concerns about some of the most rudimentary aspects” of Lubben’s application.

“Opening a public charter school in Pennsylvania is a big deal,” Rivera said. “Serving students in any district is a big deal … we expect that anyone who wants to open a charter school in Pennsylvania to at least fulfill the minimum obligations as a professional to complete all aspects of the application.”

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