Wonderland Charter School wants a charter renewal, but State College Area School District might not grant it after a recent review uncovered "systematic" and "institutionalized" failures.
SCASD found evidence that Wonderland had failed to comply with the charter school law. The board of directors on Monday held a special meeting to initiate non-renewal and/or revocation proceedings.
"These failures, in the area of special education in particular, are systemic, institutionalized, and long-standing, and were put in place and are enforced by Wonderland leadership, to include its founder, former CEO, and current business administrator; its education director; its current CEO; and its other lead teacher," SCASD solicitor Scott Etter said in a statement. "We believe that these failures are so severe and significant that it is appropriate to initiate the non-renewal/revocation proceeding provided for in the (charter school law) and the Basic Education Circular on Charter Schools."
Wonderland, which currently has 79 students and 12 teachers, had previously received two five-year renewals after its initial charter was granted, according to a SCASD resolution. The board commenced a routine review upon Wonderland's request for a a further term.
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In the midst of the review, several people associated with Wonderland, including board members, teachers and parents, informed the board of directors of their concerns with the charter: "long-standing, calculated, inappropriate, and unlawful practices with respect to students with special needs," according to a letter to the board from Superintendent Bob O'Donnell.
The three-month review also found issues with student achievement, certification, compensation and staffing, and more:
- Wonderland’s student performance falls below the district's on state and national assessments.
- The education director does not have an administrative certification.
- Wonderland teachers are the lowest paid in the state, ranking 781st out of the 781 Local Education Agencies.
- The charter spends far less on program areas, specifically special education, than it receives in funding from SCASD.
- Its "very scripted" general curriculum resembles what most school districts use as interventions for at-risk learners.
Wonderland underpays its teachers because they just don't have the money, Hal Ohnmeis, business manager and former CEO at Wonderland said. However, he said that SCASD's review didn't account for the bonuses that teachers receive at the end of the year.
As for program funding, Ohnmeis said SCASD has mischaracterized how Wonderland uses its special education funds. He said that the amount of support and/or therapy a student needs varies from each student, as do the associated costs. If not all the special education money allocated for one child is needed, he said that will go into the general fund to support the education of another student who may need more support than what's available.
"This argument about we’re not spending all the money, that’s a ploy that just doesn’t hold water," Ohnmeis said.
SCASD has reportedly asked Wonderland for information on its " Individualized Education Plans," which includes students' benchmark standards, but has been refused by the charter's CEO, the district said.
Ohnmeis said Wonderland hasn't yet provided SCASD with the student education plans because their lawyer says it could be a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act violation. He said SCASD doesn't have the right to see personally identifiable information, and because Wonderland is so small, "giving information that is not personally identifiable is darn near impossible."
However, Ohnmeis said that if Wonderland figures out how to share that information without violating FERPA, they will do so.
"It’s a nice tactic: school district forces us to do a FERPA violation and then reports us to the feds for FERPA violation and we get hit with a million dollar fine and we’re out of business," Ohnmeis said. "These are the dirty tricks that we’ve been going through for 20 years."
He said these claims are a pattern that SCASD has done since 1998, when the charter was first granted.
SCASD was able to obtain some information on student performance, including the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, Terra Nova and locally developed internal assessments. The spring 2017 PSSA pass rates show that Wonderland students performed below the district's average, particularly in math.
Ohnmeis said Wonderland wasn't given advanced notice or invited to SCASD's Monday meeting — they found out from parents who had received an email from the district. He also said that the review doesn't give specifics on the reported violations.
On its website, Wonderland posted an "open letter" and videos from students' parents in support of a charter renewal with SCASD.
"Wonderland Charter School is not just a school, it is a unique educational setting that feels like home! The needs of the parents and children should weigh in your decision to renew Wonderland Charter School’s charter," the letter said.
A public hearing on the non-renewal and/or revocation of Wonderland's charter will be held at 7 p.m. July 2. Attorney Jeffrey Litts will be presiding over the hearing process.
Ohnmeis said Wonderland will likely lose in the public hearing because he said no charter school has been successful during this stage. But he said they will go to the appeal board and then expect to be vindicated.
"I’m just tired," he said. "Twenty years we’ve been fighting this fight, you’d think they’d give it up."