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Clairton group wants to start charter school

| Friday, June 28, 2013, 7:05 a.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Clairton High School literature teacher and Clairton Education Association president Jodie Harriman work with junior Khalil Berry in the district’s Keystone Enrichment Program, designed to help students improve their scores on the Keystone Exams.

A retired Army major in Clairton has formed a group seeking to offer an alternative to the city's school district by starting a charter school.

Mark Murray submitted letters to charter school experts earlier this month on behalf of the Facebook group Clairton Charter Grass Roots Movement, seeking input as part phase one of a five-phase effort.

“Our proposed method for accomplishing this will be through voter referendum establishing a clear-cut community mandate for proceeding with this action,” the letter says.

Murray said change is needed because the district is not performing well.

“The Clairton Charter Grass Roots Movement is a group of Clairton Citizens and Alumni that seek alternative solutions to remedy an education crisis that is occurring in the town of Clairton,” he said. “The goal of this group is to facilitate change and seek reforms that current city and state rules and procedures do not address.”

State Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said Murray's plans may not be possible.

“Someone who wants to operate a charter school files an application with the school district in which the charter school is to be located,” Eller explained. “The school board determines whether to grant or deny the application. A charter school is an independent, nonprofit corporation.”

Eller said more than 50 percent of the teachers and more than 50 percent of the parents must sign petitions supporting the conversion of the school building into a charter school. If the conversion takes place, he said there must be provisions made for students who do not choose to enroll in the charter school because they are schools of choice.

“Although districts are required to provide sufficient schools and teachers to educate elementary age students in the district,” Eller said, “that requirement can be met by converting a school building to a charter school.”

If a charter school were put into place, Eller said Clairton City School District still would exist and have to pay the charter school pursuant to the Charter School Law. The district would remain responsible for overseeing the charter school, renewing the charter, revoking or not renewing the charter if grounds exist, and would have responsibilities for providing transportation for students to the school.

Murray, an advisor to the Afghan National Police in Kabul, Afghanistan, briefly attended Clairton High School before transferring and graduating from Taylor Allderdice.

The Clairton Charter Grass Roots Movement is listed as a closed group on Facebook, in which only members can invite new people, but Murray said he will open the group during the referendum phase. His proposed three-response referendum would give voters the option to maintain the current school district, disband the district and pursue a public charter school, or merge the district with another district.

Mark Wolosik, Allegheny County Elections Division manager, said referendum questions have to be “yes or no,” and generally are confined to a single subject.

State Department of Community and Economic Development's Referendum Handbook states a ballot question cannot exceed 75 words and lists a variety of requirements for the question.

“There is no single state law governing procedures for initiating and conducting a referendum,” the handbook reads. “The mechanics of actually conducting the election on the question, preparing ballots, giving notice, election day voting procedures, counting votes and certifying results are governed by the Pennsylvania Election Code.”

The district made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011, but not in 2012, according to an academic achievement report on the state Department of Education's website.

The district made AYP four consecutive years before Gov. Tom Corbett cut $1.3 million in state subsidies to Clairton.

Clairton Middle School/High School is ranked 633 out of 676 Pennsylvania public schools on based on 2011-12 PSSA math and reading scores.

While districts get some idea about the results from April's tests early in the new school year, state officials usually do not release all of the scores until the end of September.

District officials and Clairton Education Association president Jodie Harriman were surprised to hear about the group and its charter school proposal.

Harriman cited Corbett's cuts as a reason for the district's shortcomings and praised the teachers' hard work.

“To make the assumption that we're not functioning at a level at which we are capable is ridiculous considering you're taking away our necessary means to reach those goals,” Harriman said. “(The governor) continues to take them away and take them away and expect greater things to happen. These teachers are fighting hard, giving so much of their own time and their own money, everything they have to help these children. I don't see how bringing a charter school in is going to help the school system.”

Harriman said the district has an identity “and we're improving on that identity every day. No one needs to assume our identity. Absolutely not.”

“The board has not seen any proposal from this group,” board president Richard Livingston said. “I can honestly say that only one member of this group has approached me at any time, and that's because she's a good friend of the family. I'm at a loss to know what their complaints are or the reasons for doing this. They haven't talked to any member of the board or administration.”

Livingston said the district, “even as financially strapped as we are, has done a wonderful job in providing programs to our students. You look at what it would cost this district to go into a charter school, I'm estimating at least a 4-mill increase in taxes because not everybody's going to want to go to a charter school. A charter school has to prove that it's offering something different than what we're offering here.”

“Their opinion of Clairton City School District is based on ignorance,” said district spokesperson Alexis Trubiani. “We offer excellent academic programs as proven with our award-winning robotics team, as well as the number of college acceptances we have and the number of successful students we have.

“We also have Penn State talent search, which tracks our students in their college careers and technical schools following graduation. The majority of our students who go on to some post-high school education are successful. We do not focus on athletics. We focus on academics. However, a successful athletic program deserves to be recognized just as well as academics.”

Trubiani said the district has “dedicated teachers and staff that work hard to provide the best education possible. If you judge solely on test scores you are using a bad measurement of student achievement. If you ask most experts in education, they will disagree with that measurement. Clairton City School District supports their students every way possible, and we stand by our education.”

Sports may become an issue should a charter school somehow replace the district. Clairton High School's football team has won four WPIAL and PIAA Class A championships in a row and is on a quest for 64 consecutive wins.

WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said it is possible for a charter school to be a member of WPIAL and have sports scheduled accordingly, if that school goes through a number of steps. Those steps include applying to be a member of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Inc.

Murray's merger proposal may prove difficult even if a referendum is granted and passes. In 2011, Corbett recommended school districts look into merging. Clairton attempted to do so by submitting letters that year to West Mifflin Area, South Allegheny, Elizabeth Forward and West Jefferson Hills school districts. All declined Clairton's request.

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or

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