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Duquesne woman challenges conclusion that charter would not be 'financially viable'

| Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 4:11 a.m.

The proponent of a charter school in Duquesne is disputing claims by Duquesne City School District's state-appointed chief recovery officer Paul B. Long that her plan is not financially viable.

“You have to work out a budget,” Connie Lucas said on Wednesday. “No one has sat down and given us any sort of reasoning.”

Lucas said giving residents a chance to educate their children in a charter school would be preferable to “busing them all over the world,” or at least to as many as 11 nearby districts.

Long pointed to a charter school scenario, one of four in his plan, but one of three scenarios he deemed unworkable.

He estimated that real estate taxes could net $2 million needed for a charter to lease Duquesne Education Center but not $1.5 million more needed to avoid red ink.

“I have spoken to Connie a number of times,” Long said. “It sounds like I need to continue those conversations in order to meet her needs.”

Lucas fights an uphill battle for an idea submitted twice to the former state-appointed Duquesne Board of Control.

The board never rejected the plan, but Lucas revised it after acting superintendent Paul Rach said he found more than 100 problems. Then the BOC canceled an October hearing on Lucas' revised application.

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller confirmed that Lucas is appealing to the state Charter School Appeal Board.

That board is not scheduled to consider the appeal when it meets on Monday, but will consider an appeal by Propel, operator of charter schools in several Mon-Yough communities. It applied for a school in Hazelwood but the Pittsburgh school board never acted on it.

Long seeks to voluntarily transfer Duquesne youngsters at a tuition of $8,000 each to districts within 10 miles of Duquesne where no schools are in the bottom 15 percent on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. Long refused to call such schools “low-achieving,” a PDE term, but acknowledged that he referred to schools whose students could qualify for Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit grants for other schools, usually nonpublic.

Meanwhile, a former acting Duquesne superintendent said Long's voluntary transfer scenario isn't viable.

“There is no incentive,” Allegheny Intermediate Unit executive director Linda Hippert said. “The tuition is probably below (the rate in) many of them, for regular education, and it is certainly below the special education rate.”

Hippert was day-to-day superintendent in Duquesne when the AIU was contracted to run district affairs, between 2007 and 2011.

“My heart just goes out to the families and students in Duquesne,” Hippert said. “For about 12 years ...Duquesne (was) under state control and the problem (was not) resolved by Republican or Democratic administrations.”

Lucas is on a volunteer advisory council Long is consulting. She disputed Long's claim that he values advice and opinions from that panel.

“When he makes statements like that, it sounds like we are in agreement with what he said,” Lucas said.

Long touted the process of public forums and meetings with school board members, community leaders and his volunteer advisory council.

However, as is stated on page 67 of the plan, a large part of the proposal was put together “by means of technical assistance provided by the (PDE) as well as consultative educational evaluation, financial analysis and other research conducted or coordinated by Public Financial Management Inc.,” a PDE contractor.

Lucas said the council meeting in December was only an opportunity for members “to introduce themselves to one another.” She said the four scenarios were handed out at the second meeting and the third meeting, on Tuesday, happened after the plan was released.

“When it came to the actual putting together of the plan, this advisory council was supposed to be instrumental,” Lucas said.

Hippert now is acting superintendent in West Jefferson Hills, one of the districts Long is eyeing for Duquesne students, but said she could not speak for it without consulting its school board.

As AIU director, she estimated that regular tuition would have to top $10,000 apiece and special education twice that amount. She questioned whether school districts could accept less when “they're trying to minimize burdens to taxpayers.”

Hippert also called attention, as Long did at public forums, to the poor performance of Duquesne youngsters on the PSSAs.

“We know that these children need and deserve a quality education where they can be remediated and they can be brought up to grade level,” Hippert said.

Long said he talked to West Jefferson Hills and confirmed reports he has sent proposals to Gateway and Norwin.

He repeated other districts on his list, East Allegheny, Elizabeth Forward, West Mifflin Area, South Allegheny, South Park Township, Baldwin-Whitehall, Brentwood and Pittsburgh. East Allegheny and West Mifflin Area already get Duquesne secondary students under a mandate.

“South Allegheny has no comment as the board of directors has not yet reviewed this request,” said district spokeswoman Laura Thomson.

Elizabeth Forward superintendent Bart Rocco said, “We never received any official notice from Duquesne.”

Norwin spokesman Jonathan Szish said his district is reviewing Long's plan.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or

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