Santorum school flap continues

| Friday, Nov. 19, 2004

U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum should reimburse $100,000 to the Penn Hills School District for taxpayer money used since 2001 to cover online charter school tuition for his children, four school board members said Thursday.

The senator will not respond until the board makes a formal request, said Santorum's deputy chief of staff, Robert Traynham.

"He has done nothing wrong," Traynham said. "The Penn Hills School District for the last four years has paid for (Santorum's) children to attend the charter school and have seen nothing out of the ordinary. They have basically said, 'This is OK.' "

Questions over his residency prompted Santorum to announce Wednesday that he is withdrawing his five school-age children from Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, Beaver County. The No. 3 Republican in the Senate, Santorum owns a $106,000 home next door to his wife Karen's parents in Penn Hills, but he and his family split time between there and a $757,000 house in Virginia. Santorum's annual Senate salary is $157,000.

"He's admitted he's not a resident. I'm going to put up a motion for him to pay back the entire amount," said Penn Hills School Board member Erin Vecchio, chairwoman of the local Democratic Committee.

She plans to call on the board during its regular meeting Dec. 7 to urge Santorum to return the tuition money to the district. Three other board members side with Vecchio. One board member said the district should not seek the money. Another declined to comment, and three board members could not be reached.

"When I heard about it, it didn't seem quite right, but I knew if there was an appearance of impropriety, he would pull out of the cyber charter school," said board member Margie Krogh.

Penn Hills Superintendent Patricia Gennari said she phoned the senator Wednesday afternoon to arrange for the district to query him about his residency. Santorum issued a statement late that night saying he had decided to pull his children from the online school and home-school them instead after being told by district officials that "only children who live in a community on a full-time basis" are eligible for the tuition money.

"I just raised the issue and the next thing I know there was a statement," Gennari said.

Santorum decided to avoid subjecting his children to a public fight over his residency, Traynham said.

"The senator does not want to interrupt his children to go into any battle," he said.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School yesterday offered to allow Santorum to enroll the children without the tuition provided he pick up the technology costs.

"PA Cyber stands behind the Santorum children," Nick Trombetta, the school's CEO, said in a statement. "We made a commitment to the Santorum family. ... We have no intention of abandoning that commitment."

Traynham declined to comment on the offer.

State law requires that traditional public schools pay 80 percent of their per-pupil costs as tuition for students registered in their districts and enrolled in online charter schools.

Santorum began enrolling his children at Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in 2001. Tuition this school year was $38,000 for Santorum's children: Elizabeth, 13; Richard, 11; Daniel, 9; Sarah, 6; and Peter, 5. A sixth child is not yet of school age.

Online charter schools provide parents with computers, textbooks and evaluation services, and pay for Internet connections, allowing children to be taught at home.

Penn Hills board members were unaware the district was footing Santorum's online school bill until stories appeared in local newspapers, Vecchio said.

That the district no longer will be paying those costs is enough for board member Heather Hoolahan, who does not think the district should press Santorum to pay back cyber charter tuition.

"The problem is not with Senator Santorum. The problem is that the law is inherently flawed," she said. "He believed he was entitled to it, and that's a common misconception -- that taxpayer equals resident."

Santorum bought his home at 111 Stephens Lane in Penn Hills in 1997, but spends much of his time with his family at his home in Leesburg, Va., just outside the capital, an arrangement he says is in keeping with the demands of his job and his duties as a husband and father.

"Karen and I believe it is important for our family to be with me when I am working in Washington," he said in Wednesday's statement.

But Penn Hills officials said where Santorum lives matters when it comes to paying online school tuition bills.

District Solicitor Al Maiello said a 2000 case involving the Cumberland Valley School District provides a court definition of residency.

The district challenged the residency of a mother whose regular family home was outside the district, but who spent five days a week with her two children in a townhouse in Cumberland Valley. The state Supreme Court ruled the mother and children were residents of the district based on where they spent their time.

"They stay there during the days and sleep there at night," the court said. "Mail and phone calls are received there. Clothing, books and supplies are kept there as well."

Santorum's niece and nephew, Bart and Alyssa DeLuca, live in his Penn Hills home when he and his family are out of town. Bart DeLuca identified himself as the caretaker when a reporter visited the home. Traynham declined to say how many days a year the senator lives in Penn Hills, or when he last spent the night there.

"He is away when the Senate is in session," Traynham said. "When the Senate is not in session, he is able to stay at his home in Penn Hills."

The Senate is in session an average of 100 days a year, or about 20 weeks.

Santorum receives a tax break known as the homestead exclusion on the Stephens Lane house. Under the break targeted for owner-occupied homes, $15,000 is deducted from a property's assessed value, allowing the owner to reap a small savings -- about $30 for Santorum last year -- on county taxes.

Homeowners must complete applications -- which stipulate that the home must be the primary residence -- to get the tax break.

"How you determine primary residence means you live there most of the time, where you pay wage taxes, where you're registered to vote and what your driver's license says," said Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein.

Santorum has a Pennsylvania driver's license, is registered to vote in Penn Hills and pays wage taxes there, Traynham said.

The debate over the senator's residency brought to mind his 1990 House race against Democratic incumbent Doug Walgren, said Dominick Gambino, former director of the Allegheny County Property Assessment office. Santorum labeled Walgren as a carpetbagger for living near the capital rather than in the 18th District.

"I find it kind of interesting that the same issue presents itself today," Gambino said.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School takes in more than $18 million annually in tax money from districts statewide to enroll about 3,100 students. About 9,000 students are enrolled in the state's 11 cyber charter schools.

Santorum is the only U.S. senator who home-schools his children, according to the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association.

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