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Advocacy groups call for closer scrutiny of charter schools

| Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, 3:42 p.m.

Three groups with union affiliations on Wednesday pointed to the criminal case against ousted PA Cyber Charter School founder Nick Trombetta as an example why the state's nearly 180 charter schools need better oversight and stronger accountability.

The Center for Popular Democracy, Integrity in Education, and Action United of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh issued a report that alleges Pennsylvania charter schools defrauded taxpayers out of more than $30 million. That figure is an aggregate of cases brought by whistleblowers and media exposés, according to the authors.

Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools executive director Robert Fayfich said in a prepared statement that “the report draws sweeping conclusions about the entire charter sector based on only 11 cited incidents in the course of almost 20 years, while ignoring numerous alleged and actual fraud and fiscal mismanagement in (traditional) districts over that same time period.”

Trombetta, who investigators allege illegally funneled $1 million from school coffers and deferred taxes on an additional $8 million in personal income, pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of mail fraud, bribery, tax conspiracy and filing false tax returns last year. Hearings are ongoing.

Fayfich said, “Fraud and fiscal mismanagement are wrong and cannot be tolerated, but to highlight them in one sector and ignore them in another indicates a motivation to target one type of public school for a political agenda.”

The groups' report urges state officials to temporarily suspend the approval process for new charter schools, investigate existing ones, and shift from standard audits to forensic audits.

School districts paid more than $853 million in tax dollars to charters serving 128,712 students in 2013-14. Almost 4,000 Pittsburgh students attended 33 charter schools the same year.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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