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Penn Hills charter school puts second site on hold

| Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Patrick Varine | Penn Hills Progress
The former Anter Building on Universal Road, which once housed a school, is becoming an Arsenal Cider House production facility.

The Imagine Penn Hills charter school might need a backup plan for its backup plan.

The school has struggled to find a way to expand as officials look to add one new grade each academic year.

Leased space at a Frankstown Road business park became unusable because the property went into receivership in 2013, and Penn Hills Council last summer denied a year-long extension for modular classrooms to accommodate additional students.

Now, an eastern Pennsylvania court case is holding up Imagine's plans to open a second site at 1700 Universal Road.

The existing building was formerly Washington School, and since the mid-1970s was used for office space and light industrial manufacturing.

The school's current campus is 200 School Road, the former William Penn Elementary School.

The state Charter School Appeal Board in October denied the Lehigh Valley Dual Charter School's appeal to amend its charter to open a second location.

The Bethlehem Area School District, which granted the school's original charter, denied the request to expand, arguing that state law allows only first-class school districts — which are defined as school districts whose populations are 1 million or more — to permit second locations. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are the state's only first-class districts, based on population.

Carolyn Dumaresq, the state's acting secretary of education and chairwoman of the Charter School Appeal Board, wrote in the board's denial of Imagine's appeal that no provision was made for charter schools in smaller districts to expand.

“The fact that the General Assembly specifically permitted charter schools authorized by first-class school districts to operate a second location, but did not provide a specific provision allowing other charter schools to operate a second location, must be given meaning,” Dumaresq wrote.

Dumaresq wrote that if the Legislature intended all charter schools to be allowed to operate at more than one place, the law would have spelled that out. Lehigh Valley charter school officials are challenging the board's ruling in Commonwealth Court. Arguments were set to take place May 13, after this paper's press deadline.

Imagine spokesman Ken Kilpatrick said the Lehigh/Bethlehem case has put statewide charter activity on hold.

“The charter school community across the state is watching how either the Legislature or Commonwealth Court respond,” he said.

Kilpatrick said it is difficult to gauge how long it will take for a Commonwealth Court ruling, or a possible appeal following that.

“The board needs to be able to fully assess the situation under legal counsel before making any move at all,” he said.

“Therefore, there's no way for us to determine if that building will be available when the (charter appeal board) matter is ultimately resolved.”

In the meantime, the school will be able to make internal adjustments to accommodate a fifth grade next year,”Kilpatrick added.

The school has 324 children enrolled in the 2013-14 school year.

Imagine Penn Hills board members did not respond to requests for comment.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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