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Directors to vote on paying cyber bills

| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001

Gateway school directors are expected to vote tonight on whether to refuse to pay bills from cyber charter schools, which allow pupils to complete lessons online rather than in a traditional classroom setting.

If the resolution is approved, Gateway School District will join more than 300 districts statewide that already are refusing payments to cyber schools.

Superintendent Richard Domencic said in light of statewide litigation that questions the validity of several cyber schools' charters, the district should wait before agreeing to pay bills, some of which may be exorbitant.

"They don't have the buildings and staffing costs we have in a traditional school situation," Domencic said. "To think (cyber schools) are looking to draw a cost-per-pupil that other schools pay, I've got a problem with that."

But if Gateway refuses to pay the bills, the state Department of Education could withhold funds from the district, using the money instead to make direct payments to the cyber schools, department spokeswoman Beth Gaydos said.

"We believe cyber charters are legal," Gaydos said. "The state is required to withhold funds from the district and redirect them to the cyber schools. That's according to the charter school law."

The question of cyber schools' validity is not the only argument Gateway officials pose, however.

Business Manager Harvey Smith said several school officials object to an apparent lack of regulation of cyber schools that may have meant the district was billed for more than it should be.

"We have received bills from three cyber schools, totaling about $10,324 for July through October, for four students," Smith said. "For one (student), we have bills from two schools."

Smith said the cost per student to attend a cyber school for one calendar year could run as high as $10,000.

Because there are no rules requiring cyber schools to notify the district of its enrollment figures, Smith said the district cannot properly anticipate a budget to pay cyber school bills.

This is the first year Gateway has received any bills from cyber schools.

Domencic said the one case of double-billing and the inability to properly budget for cyber school bills are results of the district being unable to acquire several types of records from cyber schools.

This information, according to the department of education, is available to the district depending on the wording of the original charter.

If the charter does not require the cyber school to provide such records, the school is under no obligation to do so. If the district has questions about records, however, it can ask the cyber school's parent district.

Domencic said he would like to see more accountability from cyber schools.

Spectrum Charter School in Monroeville, which Gateway School District chartered, is much more accountable and demonstrates the way a relationship between a district and a charter school should be, he said.

When Spectrum wanted to alter its admissions policy, it first had to get approval from Gateway, Domencic said.

"You don't have any type of overseeing of cyber schools in that way," he said.

Another reason Gateway would like to wait before agreeing to pay cyber school bills, officials say, is pending state legislation that could change the way cyber schools are created and administered.

House Bill 1733 would put the responsibility of approving cyber schools with the department of education instead of local school districts. The department would then license, monitor and fund them.

Senate Bill 891 would require an agreement between cyber schools and school districts to permit students to enroll. The State Board of Education would then set minimum educational standards for the cyber schools.

Several school directors, while supporting the need to hold off on bill payments, said they did not want this resolution to indicate total opposition to cyber schools.

School director Tim Varner said he did not want to rule out the possibility of cyber schools being useful forms of education in the future.

"Conceptually, I'm not opposed to cyber schools," he said.

Domencic agreed, saying Gateway School District already has several students participating in a distance learning program online through the University of Pittsburgh.

The district does not want to be perceived as objecting to new technology, he said.

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