Credentials Don't Preclude Criticism For Proposed Charter School
Bensalem school board hearing recessed after five contentious hours; will resume next month.
The Math Science and Technology Community Charter School, or MaST, was recently named one of the best schools in Philadelphia and was honored in 2007 as the best charter school in the country.
Those credentials hold little sway with officials of the Bensalem School District. The criticism and contention at an unfinished hearing Monday night for a proposed charter school modeled after MaST made that clear.
The session differed from three recent charter school hearings not only in its longer length -- it was recessed after more than five hours -- but also in that no questions were asked by Bensalem school board members. All district comment came from the board's attorney and administrators.
Among Superintendent David Baugh's criticisms were that the application for the Isaac Newton Academy Charter School lacked specifics on curriculum and instructional methods and materials.
He added "What is proposed varies very little from what is provided by the district." Where the offerings do differ, he said, the public district is superior.
Baugh's analysis of the proposal which began around 11:45 p.m. was the subject of an objection from an INACS attorney, who said she wasn't being given any time to review it and cross-examine Baugh. As a result, the hearing will be reconvened Jan. 11 after the board's regular meeting.
The Isaac Newton school is proposed as a K-12 facility, to be opened with K-4 students in August. The initial enrollment would be 375 and expand over five years to 1,075.
The founders are looking at three potential sites: the St. Katharine Drexel School riverfront campus on State Road; an industrial park building at 520 State Road; and 1436 Wells Drive. They also are interested in the closed Armstrong school on Street Road but said the district does not want to lease it.
Township Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo and Councilman Joseph Pilieri have written letters of support for the proposed school.
Board attorney Tom Profy IV questioned INACS officials for about two hours Monday night.
In addition, he repeatedly chastized the group during its one-hour presentation for providing information and supplementary curriculum documents not included in their original written application. INACS attorney Patricia Hennessey said the newer information, supplied Friday, was meant to "flush out" the curriculum and answer questions it was anticipating from the district. Profy said the board would decide later whether to accept the extra information.
Later, Profy asked several questions involving potential conflicts of interest involving INACS founders, the owner of one of the potential sites, the boards of MaST and INACS, and INACS's pending management group.
INACS officials acknowledged that Charles Calvanese Sr., an owner of the State Road site was listed as a founder. But he has been dropped from that list, with his son taking his place, they said.
Gerald Santilli, former CFO for the Philadelphia School District, said the management group for the school would operate independently of both schools and there would be no duplicate membership on their boards.
Karen DelGuercio, founder and board president at MaST, said Bensalem was chosen because it was requested by parents including several Philadelphia police officers who might soon be allowed to move with their families to Bensalem and continue their city employment.
"That's a great tax incentive to you," she said to the board and administrators.
Local resident Stacy Kutner, former head of the Bensalem High School Home and School Association, disagreed.
"Unless tax dollars are more than $10,000 per person, it won't help us," she said in a reference to the district cost for every local student who attends a charter school.
"Charter schools take money away from public school students," Kutner added.
District business director Jack Myers asked if INACS officials would consider entering into a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, and the response was no.
MaST CEO John Swoyer said a big advantage of K-12 schools is the continuum of staff serving students throughout their education. He said that is reflected by MaST's 96-percent retention rate and the school attaining the state's Adequate Yearly Progress in 10 of the last 11 years including the last eight.
MaST has an enrollment of about 1,250 and a waiting list of about 1,900.
Baugh asked if that means INACS would simply provide "spillover" enrollment for MaST. DelGuercio, a former associate school superintendent in Philadelphia, said Bensalem residents would get first priority.
The superintendent also asked why MaST doesn't simply expand, and INACS officials said that is very difficult to do in Philadelphia. They added that Philadelphia hasn't approved a new charter since 2009.
Other objections from district officials included no library planned in the first two years. INACS officials said "classroom libraries" would be utilized during that time.
MaST opened a three-story library and media center at its Philadelphia school site in September.
The school boasts state-of-the-art technology including an HD video studio, 1,200 computers and the largest publicly accessible telescope in the Delaware Valley.
It was named this fall by Philadelphia Magazine as one of the best schools in the city. The U.S. Department of Education's Center for Education Reform picked MaST as the best charter school in the country in 2007.