During her year-and-a-half stint as Pennsylvania’s top education executive, Carolyn Dumaresq oversaw hundreds of charter schools across the state.
Last month, though, she hit a stumbling block in her quest to open one of her own.
Dumaresq’s application to open a charter school in the Harrisburg City School District was rejected by the local school board in a 7-0 vote in February.
Dumaresq intends to appeal the decision to the state Charter School Appeal Board — a public board that can override a local school board’s decision to close charter schools or deny new applications.
Dumaresq chaired the Charter School Appeal Board from 2013 to 2015, when she served as acting secretary of education under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, a staunch charter school advocate.
That experience taught her the difference between a strong charter application and a weak one, she told the Capital-Star last week.
But it also means Dumaresq has worked alongside all the people who could now grant her charter appeal.
All five current members of the charter appeal board are holdovers from the Corbett administration — a fact highlighted by the education news site The Notebook earlier this month.
The Notebook pointed out that all of the current board members’ terms have expired. Wolf, who has called for stronger oversight of Pennsylvania’s charter schools since he took office in 2015, has not named any nominees to replace them. Nor has he taken action to fill the board’s one vacant seat.
Three of the current board members served alongside Dumaresq for less than a year. The other two worked with her for the entire 18-month period tenure as board chair.
Given the lack of turnover among board members since Dumaresq, some experts fear that she may not get the impartial hearing she deserves.
Even if nothing in the state’s ethics code prohibits Dumaresq’s former board colleagues from ruling on her appeal, the situation could still be problematic, said Patrick Christmas of the Philadelphia-based Committee of 70, a group that advocates for ethics in government.
If the board rules in Dumaresq’s favor and overturns the decision by the Harrisburg School Board, her past relationship with members could invite questions over the impartiality of their decision, Christmas said.
“People have to trust [these decisions],” Christmas said. “If there’s any sense the decision has been rigged or that the playing field isn’t level because people have this relationship, that’s a really big problem. That could well be an issue here.”
Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates for quality public education, agreed.
She said that Wolf and the Senate, which must approve the governor’s board nominees, have created a deeply troubling situation by failing to observe term limits and appoint new members to the appeals board.
That a former chair could now appear before her old colleagues, whose terms have all expired, highlights the fact that turnover on the board is long overdue, Cooper said.
“It’s not about the individuals, it’s about the entity,” Cooper, a former senior aide to Gov. Ed Rendell, said. “The perspective of the sitting governor is not present, and it undermines the intent and the process that was established for this board. The board itself is in doubt.”
As for Dumaresq’s former colleagues ruling on her appeal, Cooper said, “it does create the appearance of lack of independence since no new members have been appointed… That’s a very troubling situation.”
Cooper’s group is calling on the board to withhold all judgments on charter appeals until it has been repopulated.
“This is untenable and it needs to come to an end,” Cooper said. “We’re calling for them to suspend operations, and the governor should direct them to do so.”
‘A fair hearing’
While Wolf has the power to nominate new appointees to the board, he hasn’t done so since he took office in 2015.
Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said the administration is “[working] through the nominations process with the Senate in a collaborative way.”
He declined to comment on Dumaresq’s appeal.
Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Eric Levis also declined to weigh in, saying the agency “doesn’t comment on hypothetical scenarios.”
He suggested that Dumaresq’s appeal will follow the same process as any other that comes before the board.
“The appeals [board] is aware that Harrisburg School District recently denied the application of the charter school,” Levis said. “Any appeal of a proposed charter school to [the appeals board] is reviewed and decided in accordance with applicable charter school law.”
For her part, Dumaresq doesn’t think that her service on the board will sway its members.
“Even when I chaired the [board,] they were all very independent thinkers,” Dumaresq said. “I do think I’ll get a fair hearing.”
Attempts to reach individual board members by phone were unsuccessful.
Dumaresq said the board exists to balance the authority of local school boards, which may have a “natural tendency to say no” to charters for financial or political reasons.
The appeals board was convened to give charter applications a “fresh look” and evaluate them based on their educational merits, she said.
On that criteria, she thinks her application for a K-8 charter school in Harrisburg is on sure footing.
“I think they’ll take a look at our application and [see] a solid budget and a healthy and safe place for children,” Dumaresq said. “I think it was a very strong application.”
If the board reverses the Harrisburg School Board’s decision, Dumaresq’s STEAM Academy Charter School will open in Midtown Harrisburg in September 2019.
Its inaugural class of 40 kindergarteners will advance through the 4th grade by the time the charter expires in 2024.
Charter schools are funded by contributions from its students’ home school districts. Critics say that charter schools drain money from public school districts, leaving them with fewer resources to serve the remaining students.
That’s why the Harrisburg School Board has rejected most of the charter applications it’s received in recent years.
The district hasn’t granted a new charter since 2012. School board directors say they need to keep public dollars in the school system.
“Charter schools siphon money from public schools and divert money away from our district,” said Harrisburg School Board member Carrie Fowler, who voted against Dumaresq’s charter application last month. “That will make our school funding situation even worse than it is now.”
Board president Danielle Robinson cited similar reasoning in comments to TheBurg Magazine last month.
Dumaresq has 60 days from the school board’s Feb. 19 vote to appeal the decision. She must collect 1,000 signatures from district residents who support her application to qualify for a hearing.
She doesn’t think she’ll have any trouble meeting that threshold.
“What we’re hearing from residents and parents of the school district is how much in favor many of them are,” Dumaresq said. “They were happy to read we were going forward with an appeal.”