Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale accused Chester Community Charter School of receiving nearly $1.3 million in improper lease reimbursements on its own buildings from the state Department of Education.
His 80-page audit outlined 11 findings of “significant noncompliance” by the state’s largest charter school, which draws most of its 3,200 students from the distressed Chester Upland School District. The audit, released Wednesday, covered from May 20, 2012 to April 22, 2013.
DePasquale urged the education department to recoup the $1.3 million, which the audit said Chester Community received between 2008 and 2011. While state law allows charters to get reimbursements for leasing public or private facilities, buildings owned by charter schools are ineligible. DePasquale said one of the school’s founders previously owned school buildings and later transferred them to a related nonprofit established solely to support the charter school.
Other findings ranged from failing to comply with teacher certification provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind act and inaccurate reporting of child accounting data to the Pennsylvania information management system.
“What we found at Chester Community Charter School raises concerns on many levels,” DePasquale said in a statement. “In addition to improperly collecting a huge chunk of taxpayer funding for lease reimbursements, this well-funded charter school seems to disregard even basic school operational requirements.”
The school’s chief executive issued a blistering response.
“The egregious, error-riddled and blatantly biased nature of the auditor’s report can only be considered harassment for no other purpose than to discredit a charter school,” David Clark wrote in a message posted on the school’s website.
Clark said public records show that the school has never owned the property it now leases.
“The auditor general makes the outrageous suggestion that CCCS gave away $50 million in real estate, even though records supplied to the auditor general conclusively show that CCCS never owned the land it leases,” he said.
Payouts by public school districts to charters have strained many Pennsylvania school budgets. The charters, meanwhile, are lobbying Gov. Tom Corbett to change the funding formula in their favor. Charter schools -- public schools independent from their local school districts -- and related funding and standards are expected to surface next month when the state legislature reconvenes.
In January 2012, about 45% of Chester Upland students attended charter schools and the district was spending about 40% of its budget on payments to charters.
Chester Upland, one of four school districts labeled distressed under the state’s intercept program, sits 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia and consists primarily of the impoverished city of Chester as well as the borough of Upland and Chester Township.
In Philadelphia, where thee school district’s financial woes have generated national headlines, city officials are preparing a $50 million bond issue to help schools open as scheduled on Sept. 9.
State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, introduced a bill that would require charters to undergo more detailed disclosure and an annual audit, and comply with open meetings and open records laws.