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Cyber schools' funding targeted

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Sunday, April 29, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Recommendations
Nick Trombetta, chief administrative officer for the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, has made these recommendations for addressing cyber-charter schools to the state Senate Education Committee:

  • Develop state standards and guidelines for cyber schools.

  • Limit the number of cyber schools until it is known what cyber schools should look like, what they should provide and how much they should cost.

  • Limit enrollment until guidelines for cyber schools are developed.

  • Limit tuition to actual instructional cost, plus a management fee not to exceed the average per pupil cost of students in the Commonwealth.

  • Provide financial relief to districts affected by the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School that were unaware of the school and did not budget for it.

  • Allocate funding for the creation of the Pennsylvania Virtual School District so that the state's cyber schools are based on Pennsylvania standards.

  • Encourage consortium and partnerships to prevent a replication of effort, costs, responsibilities and services among districts establishing their own cyber programs.
  • Across southwestern Pennsylvania, school districts are letting bills collect dust.

    They're refusing to pay the bills from the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, Beaver County, and they hope a Commonwealth Court judge will make sure they never have to pay.

    The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is seeking an injunction to prevent the state Department of Education from withholding subsidies from districts that refuse to pay cyber schools, such as the one in Beaver County.

    The lawsuit contends that cyber schools do not conform with several requirements of the Charter School Law of 1997, including having a physical location, verifiable attendance, teachers personally interacting with students, accountability and minimum hours of instruction.

    Two Butler County school districts - Butler Area and Mars - are named in the association's lawsuit filed last week, along with the Cameron County and Pocono Mountain districts. The West Jefferson Hills School Board in southern Allegheny County recently voted to support the litigation.

    With two cyber schools operating this year and eight expected next year, a separate act is needed to govern cyber charter schools, said Thomas Gentzel, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

    'The charter-school law envisions a bricks-and-mortar facility - a physical place,' Gentzel said. 'They're trying to force cyber schools into the Charter School Law where we don't think the Legislature intended it to be.'

    Al Bowman, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the lawsuit is an extension of the school board association's tactic to kill all charter schools.

    'They will try to kill charter schools any way they can - through the front door with legislation or the back door with litigation,' he said. 'They don't like choice; that's what it comes down to.'

    Bowman also disagreed with Gentzel's contention that the state should fund cyber schools directly, rather than the money coming from local districts.

    'Why should a school district be able to collect taxes for a child they're not educating?' Bowman said. 'Parents decide where the money goes.'

    Butler, Mars and West Jefferson Hills have students using the cyber charter school in Beaver County, but the districts have not paid the bills.

    'We believe cyber schools developed as charter schools are not legal,' said Myles Stepanovich, superintendent of West Jefferson Hills, which has three students using the school.

    The Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is in its first year of operation. The Beaver County school has about 500 students from 105 districts, said Nick Trombetta, chief administrative officer for the cyber school and superintendent of the Midland School District, which sponsors the cyber school. About 700 students are enrolled for next year, with 300 more awaiting interviews.

    Of the 105 school districts, about 60 have not paid bills sent by the school, he said.

    Among those districts is Penn Hills, which has not paid its bill for 10 students attending the cyber school.

    The district's business manager, Gary Koser, said the cyber school has not provided Penn Hills with any information that the district has requested, only invoices.

    'We had no notification of it. We didn't budget for it,' he said. 'When we asked for some procedural explanations, we got nothing. They could bill me for 150 kids, and we wouldn't know if they're there.'

    The Wilkinsburg School District has only one student using the cyber school and has paid its bill. But school board President Jean Dexheimer said the situation could change if the number of students increases.

    'As soon as you're talking about 10 students, you're talking about another mill of tax in this district,' she said.

    Trombetta said he understands the displeasure of districts receiving unanticipated invoices but is upset that Pennsylvania School Board Association representatives never have visited the school.

    'I understand most districts felt immune to the (Charter School Law). When they gave us the status of a charter school, they gave us all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of the act,' he said. 'I can't believe they'd give us that status if they felt we didn't meet the requirements of the act.'

    Edward Fink, superintendent of the Butler Area School District, which has nine students using the cyber school, said the payment structure is not fair. Districts must pay the cyber school their own per-pupil cost, which for Butler Area is $5,454 per student.

    'If cyber schools are to exist, there has to be a better mode of operation,' Fink said.

    Trombetta said he agrees with the concern that some districts now pay too much while others pay too little. He said the same price should be set for all districts based on the actual instructional cost, plus a management fee, that does not exceed the state average per pupil cost.

    In testimony before the state Senate Education Committee in February, Trombetta also asked that the state reimburse districts this year for the unexpected expense.

    Although Trombetta said he is confident the lawsuit will not be successful, he said the cyber schools must be addressed.

    'I'd rather do it through legislative action rather than through the courts,' he said. 'We do need a vision for where we want this to go statewide. The state cannot afford to proceed without that vision.'

    Trombetta said he is not concerned that the litigation may scare away potential students. In fact, he said, any publicity can attract students.

    'A lot of folks are galvanized by this whole thing,' he said. 'If they're against it, it must be good.'

    Brian C. Rittmeyer can be reached at brittmeyer@tribweb.com or (412) 306-4540.

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