Letter to the Editor
Our Taxes are for Educating our Kids not Fighting Needless Legal Battles
Hopes were high in December when the local school board, for the Souderton Area (SASD), convened a meeting to reauthorize our charter school, the Souderton Charter School Collaborative (SCSC). Many expected an easy renewal. However, the district chose to complicate matters at the meeting and make things difficult for both the charter school and the district. Their unusual decision may trigger a legal battle that will waste taxpayer dollars.
Despite several years of contentious debate and general rancor, things actually seemed to be improving. Parents were getting together from different schools and the district board and the charter school board were discussing shared concerns in a civil way. After several months of inquiries and looking over the data the charter school shared with the superintendent’s office, the district announced it would vote on the reauthorization of the charter. The charter school community, parents, neighbors, and fans crowded into the districts meeting room. Laughter and polite applause erupted from the crowd when the local high school kids presented. Andy Souchet, his daughter and another student testified cheerfully on behalf of the school, enumerating some of their favorite things about the school; how engaged the teachers are, how they know each student. The good mood did not last. Instead of a simple up or down vote, the district decided, for the first time in twenty years of renewals, to attach conditions to the renewal.
Every five years the Souderton Area School Board (SASD) has a responsibility to authorize the charter for the Souderton Charter School Collaborative(SCSC). Since the founding of the charter school this process was a simple yes-or-no vote. The charter has consistently been reauthorized with a simple majority. This is not surprising. The Souderton area is lucky to have one of the best charter schools in PA. For that matter, some would say SCSC is one of the best elementary schools of any kind in PA with the awards and ratings to prove it.
This year however the SASD board attached two new conditions to the existing charter. On the face of it the conditions may seem reasonable. Match the districts health plan and certify more teachers. However, these conditions are vaguely worded in one case and in the other imposes requirements simply not required by law. Finally, the district insulted the school with the spurious claim that it was “breaking the law”.
SCSC has no choice but to reject these conditions.
The Souderton Charter School Collaborative takes their responsibilities as a public institution seriously and follows the letter of the law in all things. The teachers and the small number of administrators work diligently each and every day to do right by the people of the communities they serve: Souderton, Harleysville, Telford and Franconia. They seek to provide the finest elementary school they can for the kids that are entrusted to them. This suggestion by the district that they have somehow been derelict in their duty flies in the face of reality.
Here is why the accusations the district has made are flimsy:
SASD cites the language of the PA Charter law which states that the charter school must offer “the same health care benefits as the employee would be provided if he or she were an employee of the local district.” The definition of the “same” is legally speaking a vague term. Naturally, the Health plan SASD, a 120 million dollar institution, maintains will be different than a plan a small charter school can set up.
Despite this, SCSC has made extraordinary efforts to closely match the SASD health plan in terms of co-pays and deductibles for its employees through a formal Healthcare Reimbursement Account (HRA). A review of the numbers will show that SCSC has acted in good faith to closely match the district’s plan dollar for dollar.
Fortunately, since the law was written, in 2017 the Charter Appeals Board (CAB) ruled on this and set the precedent on the interpretation of the expression: “the same health insurance”. CAB stated in their opinion “..to require charter schools to provide health care plans that are identical in every respect to the local district’s plan is an unreasonable burden to place upon charter schools...” This CAB decision allows charter school to continue with a plan that is similar if not an exact match to the districts plan.
SASD is citing Pennsylvania law that applies to traditional public District schools when it describes a requirement that public school teachers must have Level II certification (within 6 years of being hired). This does not apply to Charter Schools. Pa. Department of Education (PDE) clearly states that “...service time on the types of Level I certificates listed below will not count against the validity of the certificate in charter schools: Instructional I” Further PDE states “Service time accrued on the Level I certificates listed above is strictly optional service time and may be used to meet Level II requirements.” CSL permits teachers holding a Level I certificate to remain at Level I while teaching at a charter school.
All of SCSC’s core academic lead teachers are certified in compliance with charter school law.
The District is correct in saying the rules are different for charter schools. Indeed, charter school law expressly intended that charter schools "operate independently from the existing school district structure."
Tax-payer Money is for Teaching Our Kids
Now that the SASD has placed these conditions on the renewal, tax-payer dollars may have to be spent, administrators and teachers will be distracted, and our kids will get less of our attention.
If the district disagrees with the laws that govern charter school standards, they are welcome to pursue these issues at the state level. They cannot impose what they think the law should be on this school. We think the tax-paying people of the Souderton-area don’t want the board spending thousands of tax-payer dollars to make a political point. We don’t want to punish our local, hard-working, teachers; charter school and traditional. We don’t want to punish our local school kids. Souderton, Harleysville, Franconia, and Telford residents would rather the board used our hard-earned money to pursue higher goals. The upcoming legal battle is a significant distraction from the real work both bodies share: educating our children.
I suspect many members of the board of directors acted in good faith, but based their decisions on incomplete or inaccurate information. The sensible thing to do is simply drop the conditions. The district will not win. Consider discussing this with your elected school board member to remove the conditions and hopefully we can put our taxes to better use than paying lawyers to fight a frivolous legal battle.
Note: The views expressed in this letter are entirely my own. While I volunteer to serve on SCSC’s board, these views do not necessarily express those of anyone on the board or the organization as a whole. These are the views of a Souderton tax-payer and father of two.