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Penn-Trafford teachers union chief calls for changes in cyber-school funding

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In the wake of a federal indictment against the founder of PA Cyber Charter School, the president of the Penn-Trafford teachers union is calling for reforms to the funding formula for cyber schools in the state.

Cyber schools have a place in education, but they're getting too much money from local school districts, said Shaun Rinier of the Penn-Trafford Education Association.

Rinier's comments at the Penn-Trafford School Board meeting on Monday stemmed from the federal case against Nick Trombetta, who is accused of taking nearly $1 million from PA Cyber and a foundation he started. Trombetta has pleaded not guilty.

Critics of the funding formula for cyber schools complain that per-student subsidies are awarded to the cyber schools based on the varying cost of educating students in each public district instead of the cyber school's operating expenses.

In Penn-Trafford, the formula requires the district to cover an $8,000 cost per student enrolled in a cyber school, said Brett Lago, the district's business manager. The cost increases to about $11,000 for a student with special needs.

About 50 to 60 children who live in the district are enrolled in a cyber school this year.

“There's no way they should get the same subsidy as a public school district, and you see what happened with PA Cyber,” Rinier said. “They were awash in money. They didn't know what to do with it.

“I just think enough is enough. We have good public schools around here, and they're getting robbed.”

Rinier said he doesn't understand how the cyber schools have so much clout in Harrisburg. He suggested that local legislators representing Penn-Trafford “need to get off their butts and do something” about the funding issue.

One potential reform, addressing the so-called “double dip” in pension costs, stalled in the state House of Representatives this summer, Lago said.

As it was introduced, House Bill 618 permanently would have eliminated employee retirement costs from the per-pupil funding formula for cyber schools, which also receive a separate state reimbursement for employee pensions.

The bill changed in June, when Republicans on the House Education Committee, including state Rep. Mike Reese of Mt. Pleasant, passed an amendment to exempt retirement and food-service costs from the funding formula for two years. Two Republicans joined all 10 Democrats on the committee in opposing the amendment.

The House hasn't taken action on the bill since June 30.

In general, Lago said, legislators haven't shown an appetite for doing anything about the funding issues.

But school board President P. Jay Tray said the Pennsylvania School Boards Association has been revising its priorities to be more vocal and lobby the Legislature more on the cyber-funding situation.

“From my perspective as an individual, I support you 150 percent,” Tray told Rinier.

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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