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Propel charter school fight continues

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Monday, Nov. 22, 2004

With two state appeal board decisions and a court ruling under his belt, and a flagship charter school in its second year, Jeremy Resnick is optimistic about the future of Propel Schools.

"We've got a solid track record. We've got a great school open in Homestead. We've seen the approvals that we've had as recognition for the quality of our program," said Resnick, Propel's executive director.

But Montour School District officials remain convinced they can prevent Propel from opening a charter school in Robinson.

"We made a case that was a very solid one for not having Propel in this area. There is really no need," said acting Superintendent Joe Findley. "There is no benefit whatsoever to Propel. They don't offer anything that is extraordinary or significant."

Both sides are waiting for the state Charter School Appeal Board to decide if Propel should be granted a charter to open a school in the district. The Montour school board rejected Propel's application in February. The appeal board decision is expected Dec. 14.

The appeal board has found in Propel's favor twice before, reversing rejections from the Steel Valley and McKeesport Area districts. But its approval is not a given -- since 1999, the board has granted 22 charters and denied 24.

"That's why we found the decisions in Homestead and McKeesport so encouraging," Resnick said. "It's a thoughtful group of people that have given us the thumbs up."

In March, a three judge Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court panel supported the appeal board's decision in Steel Valley. McKeesport is now asking the court to review and reverse the appeal board's decision there. A McKeesport representative could not be reached to comment.

Between December 2003 and October 2004, Montour spent about $6,650 in attorney fees related to Propel, most associated with the case before the appeal board, Solicitor Greg Gleason said.

Montour school board Vice President Jan Esterly said Propel's victories in Steel Valley and McKeesport don't necessarily mean it will win in Montour.

"Those areas are severely depressed areas, with schools whose test scores have historically been low. Here at Montour, we are not a depressed area. Our school district is well-functioning, with a history of test scores continually going up," she said.

According to the state Department of Education, Montour met progress targets in math and reading in 2003-04, while Steel Valley needs to improve in reading and math among minority, poor and special education student groups, and McKeesport needs to improve in math among minorities and poor students.

"I strongly believe in the public school system's ability to give a great education," Esterly said. "When the taxpayers look at what we have to offer, they would choose Montour over Propel. Propel would have difficulty getting students from the Montour School District."

Findley said Propel does not offer anything Montour doesn't already have.

"Had they offered us a school for the performing arts, or something that served as a supplement to what we do here, they would've been welcomed with open arms. They didn't do that. They offered us a cookie-cutter approach, and they didn't even make a very good case for it," Findley said.

In the eastern suburbs, Woodland Hills rejected Propel's application for a charter, while Penn Hills asked Propel to withdraw its application without voting for or against it. Resnick said Propel is now collecting the required petition signatures to appeal Woodland Hills' rejection to the appeal board.

"It's not pleasant, but it's part of what it takes to get a school open," Resnick said.

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