Aug. 3, 2017

Charter schools are public agencies funded by tax dollars, but how transparent are they?

By Mary Niederberger and Stephanie Hacke

Aug. 3, 2017

Charter schools are public agencies funded by tax dollars, but how transparent are they?

By Mary Niederberger and Stephanie Hacke

(Illustration by Anita DuFalla/PublicSource)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

Imagine your kid keeps missing school because the bus doesn’t show up. Or you want to know if your school has tested water fountains for lead. Or your taxes go up. Where do you go to ask questions and get them answered? Your local school board meeting.

School district board members regularly face residents and their questions or complaints on school operations and district use of taxpayer money.

Constituents line up at the microphone, and board members are put in the hot seat. Public school district budgets are primarily composed of real estate tax dollars paid by local homeowners. And, for that reason, it is every taxpayer's right to question those budget allocations.

But exercising that right proves a bit more difficult when it comes to the 15 brick-and-mortar charter school organizations in Allegheny County and the 14 cyber charter schools that operate in the state — all of which are also funded by taxpayer dollars.

First, you have to be able to find out when and where your school board meetings are. It is helpful to know who the board members are, a task that can be daunting with charters because board members are not elected locally but appointed by school founders and other board members. And, if you still aren’t getting the answers you need, you may need to file a request to the school’s Right-to-Know officer.

To study the differing standards of transparency and accessibility, PublicSource set out on a review of websites for this information from all charter schools operating in Allegheny County as well as the county’s 43 traditional public school districts.

We evaluated transparency based on how easy it was to schedule on-site visits to charter schools. We also assessed their general competence about the Right-To-Know law: Did they miss deadlines? Did they know what the public was entitled to and did they provide it?

On the websites, we specifically looked for the answers to:

  • Is there a roster of board members’ names?
  • Are the times and locations of board meetings listed?
  • Is the name of the Right-To-Know officer available?

The review was conducted on the schools’ websites over recent weeks with reporters clicking on all possible links to find the information. During the review period, the tallies changed as some schools added information to their sites. Additional information may also have been added after the conclusion of the review this week.

All of the traditional school districts with the exception of Duquesne School District posted the names of board members and the dates, times and locations of board meetings. We were also able to locate the names and contact information for Right-to-Know officers on each of the districts’ websites, except for the Sto-Rox and Plum school districts.

A Right-to-Know officer is an employee, mandated by law for public agencies (charter schools included), who processes public information requests. The law also requires all such agencies to post contact information for their Right-to-Know officers on their respective websites, along with a form that can be used to file a request for information.

But when it comes to charter schools, transparency about board members, meetings and Right-to-Know officers was a mixed bag.

Transparency scorecard for
brick-and-mortar charters

Brick-and-mortar charterWebsite lists board membersWebsite lists board meeting detailsWebsite lists Right-to-Know officerSchool allowed PublicSource reporter to visit
The Academy
City Charter High School
Environmental Charter School at Frick Park
Hill House Passport Academy
Manchester Academic Charter School
Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship
Propel Schools
Provident Charter School
Spectrum Charter School
Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter SchoolDates only - no times/locations
Urban Pathways K-5 College Charter School
Urban Pathways 6-12 Charter School
Young Scholars of Western Pennsylania Charter SchoolOnly board president
Young Scholars of McKeesport Charter SchoolOnly board president
Westinghouse Arts Academy Charter SchoolThe school does not open until fall

(Source: PublicSource research and reporting)

Only one brick-and-mortar charter school satisfied all three measures from the get-go: The Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship.

Spectrum, a charter school for students with special needs, also met all three measures. However, information about the Right-to-Know officer was found on page 9 of the parent handbook and only said the officer is the school’s CEO.

Kelly Wall, the spokesperson for Propel Schools, which will operate 13 schools in the 2017-18 school year, said meeting dates will be added to the website for the new school year, which will make its listings complete.

Westinghouse Arts Academy, which will open this fall in Wilmerding for grades 9-12, lists no board members, board meeting details or Right-to-Know officer as of yet.

West Mifflin Area Superintendent Dan Castagna said the lack of transparency among charters makes it unfair to traditional public schools.

“As a seated superintendent, I face taxpayers at public meetings answering any/all questions on the use of tax dollars every month,” Castagna wrote in an email.

Students at Hill House Passport Academy spend three hours in the classroom and three hours working remotely online each day. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

As public schools, charter schools are required to follow the same laws as traditional school districts when it comes to transparency in their operations, including holding public board meetings and providing information on any expenditures.

“There is not supposed to be a separate set of rules,” said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Sometimes it appears that way.

But leaders of some charter schools say the lack of transparency and responsiveness is not deliberate but, in fact, a result of small staffs. Unlike school districts, with large administrative staffs, small charter schools rely on the CEO to wear many hats, including Right-to-Know Officer and webmaster.

Not deliberate

Such appears to be the case at Hill House Passport Academy in the Hill District, which offers a diploma retrieval program for students who have dropped out or been expelled from their home districts.

Passport Academy Principal Jeffrey Jackson took PublicSource on a tour of the school, located in the basement of the Hill House in July. PublicSource attempted to reach school officials in May, but there is no administrator or Right-to-Know officer listed on the website and an initial phone message was not returned.

Jeffrey Jackson is entering his second year as principal of the Hill House Passport Academy charter school, which focuses on teaching students ages 17 to 21 who haven’t yet earned their diploma. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Connections were made with the school after PublicSource contacted K12 Inc., which supplies curriculum to Passport Academy.

Jackson, a former principal in the Kiski Area School District, said he knows the school’s website does not provide adequate information. He is working to correct that.

When he worked at a traditional public school district, the central administration handled the website. But as the leader of a small charter, “That falls on me to make sure that it all gets done,” said Jackson, who is starting his second year as the school’s principal.

Of the brick-and-mortar charters in Allegheny County, only seven of the 15 operators listed a Right-to-Know officer, 11 listed board members and eight listed meeting details.

Eleven of the 14 charter school organizations permitted visits by reporters.

In most of the cases where no Right-to-Know officer was listed, school leaders directed PublicSource to the correct contact once contacted by phone and email. Often, the charter school principal or CEO was also performing this duty.

Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he knows transparency is an issue for charters. His organization represents 53 brick-and-mortar charter schools in the state, and Eller said he is working with member schools to list meeting dates, minutes, board members, CEO and contact information. The alliance also holds annual conferences to educate members on the regulations they are required to follow.

Eller said he believes the lack of transparency is not deliberate.

“I would say most of the brick-and-mortar charter schools are smaller organizations,” Eller said. “They don’t have the staffing. It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact.”

At the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, an administrator cited staff vacations as the reason for a delay in gathering financial information. The information was provided 33 days after the initial request was filed. School officials failed to provide an initial response within five days and it took four follow-up email reminders to get the information.

Among the 14 cyber charters, nine satisfied all three transparency measures. Only one, the Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation, did not have any of the information posted.

Agora Cyber Charter School and Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School use BoardDocs, which provides access to board meeting agendas and votes, along with a list of board members. Agora also provides a way for parents to virtually attend board meetings and ask questions of the board members.

One thing many schools — both traditional districts and charters — have in common was how counterintuitive their websites could be. The contact information for the Right-to Know officer was sometimes so difficult to find that it required a lengthy search of the webpage and clicking through multiple links. The lack of accessibility could derail some citizens from getting the information they’re looking for.

Opening their doors

PublicSource also found a variety of transparency levels when it made requests to visit the brick-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County.

Eleven of the 14 charter school organizations permitted visits by reporters.

The Academy Charter School for court-adjudicated youth denied access, saying its current school building was not in the condition they wanted it to be for a media visit. A spokesman said the facility was being renovated to accommodate a new program and that The Academy would be relocated by fall to a new location in a former city school building in another neighborhood.

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The Spectrum CEO spoke with a reporter about a visit but then she stopped responding to the requests to set it up. The only information that is accessible from this school is from the state Department of Education and the school’s website, which satisfied two of the three transparency measures, lacking a listing for a Right-to-Know officer.

At the Young Scholars of McKeesport and Western Pennsylvania charter schools, administrators initially resisted visits but eventually permitted a reporter into the schools. School Board President M. Melih Demirkan, who heads the boards of both schools, apologized for the delay. “It was nothing intentional. I think there’s some sort of lack of communication there,” he said.

Complying with the law

Information requests filed with the traditional districts were generally responded to within the time limits set by the state Right-to-Know law, though some districts needed a reminder about deadlines.

For the brick-and-mortar charters, while they also generally responded to requests within the limits of the law, reporters had to explain those time limits to the schools in several cases.

  • At the Provident Charter School for children with dyslexia, Principal and CEO Brett Marcoux was willing to comply. But he was unaware of the deadlines under the law and the requirement for written responses.
  • At the Academy, when an initial Right-to-Know request was filed, one of its staff members called a reporter with the name of an administrator who held the information being sought. The reporter called the staff member and left a voicemail explaining the law. Then the Academy’s public relations representative got involved and the school complied with the law.
  • Propel was the most responsive to PublicSource’s Right-to-Know requests, with an RTK officer listed on the website and all deadlines promptly met.

But the Right-to-Know process has been more difficult with the cyber charters. After determining names of RTK officers, there were frequent battles for information —most often for attendance records, which the schools appeared hesitant to release.

  • Agora, Commonwealth Charter Academy and ASPIRA Bilingual Cyber Charter School cited the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act in their initial denial for records. While the act prohibits the release of identifying student information, PublicSource did not request any data that would identify students. Agora later provided the records, and Commonwealth officials agreed to provide a limited form of the data if PublicSource settled an appeal filed with the Office of Open Records. ASPIRA still has not provided the data, and an appeal with the Office of Open Records is pending.
  • ACT Academy Cyber Charter School, however, said the records for 2015-16 were not available after a change in leadership that took place at the school in 2016-17.

Detailing these interactions may seem insignificant, especially in the cases where schools eventually complied. But accessibility is at the heart of the Right-to-Know law; it is part of a reporter’s job to seek and sometimes fight for this information, but a parent or concerned citizen should be able to obtain information without investing serious effort and time.

PublicSource had a similar experience requesting records from charter schools that the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) had two years ago.

In 2015, the PSBA sent Right-to-Know requests to the 173 charter schools that existed at the time in the state. The requests sought financial, operational and academic information about the schools.

Ninety-two of the charters responded with all of the information. The PSBA then filed appeals on 75 requests. The filing prompted 27 schools to comply, and the appeals were withdrawn. Another 29 schools complied after the the Office of Open Records ruled in PSBA’s favor.

The Office of Open Records ruled in favor of PSBA in cases with 19 other schools, but the schools still did not comply. Records were not obtained from the remaining six schools for other reasons that were not specified by the PSBA.

The PSBA did not take the next step with those schools did not comply, which would have been to appeal in court.

“I think those organizations that don’t reply are probably hoping it will get to that point and you won’t pay the money and go to court,” Robinson said.

StoryMary Niederberger and Stephanie Hacke

Mary covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or
Stephanie is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at

PhotographyJohn Hamilton

John is a photography intern at PublicSource.

EditingHalle Stockton and Mila Sanina

Halle is PublicSource's managing editor. Mila is PublicSource's executive director.

Web development and graphicsNatasha Khan

Natasha is PublicSource's interactives & design editor.