State College Area School District to seek civil action against Wonderland Charter School

The State College Area school board at its meeting Monday night authorized district solicitor Scott Etter to pursue civil action against the former Wonderland Charter School and its founders and senior administrators, Harold and Marilyn Ohnmeis.

The Ferguson Township-based charter school voluntarily closed its doors and gave up its charter in July, after the SCASD board voted to send Wonderland’s charter renewal to a public hearing.

The civil action, according to the motion from Superintendent Bob O’Donnell and Business Manager Randy Brown, is to recoup $49,140 that was given to Wonderland in July as a monthly tuition payment intended for instruction during the 2018-19 school year. Etter was also authorized to seek to collect other assets and resources funded by taxpayer money.

Etter told the board that after Wonderland closed, Brown wrote a letter on behalf of the district to the Ohnmeises “requesting or demanding that that money be returned,” and have so far not gotten any money or response.

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“It’s our assumption and strong belief that all or a substantial portion of that money should be returned to the district,” he said.

In addition to the $49,140, Etter said that under the Pennsylvania Charter School Law, in conjunction with the nonprofit law, when a school ceases to operate, the remaining money is to be returned to the districts that paid into it.

Since Wonderland’s inception in 1999, Etter said that State College Area School District taxpayers have paid in excess of $7 million into the school.

“I’m certainly not suggesting the district is entitled to the return of $7 million, but at a minimum $49,000 should be returned, and I think when we’re done with discovery, that the number will be higher than that. Substantially higher,” Etter said.

Etter said he’s still working on compiling a list of enrollment and which district each student resided in, but said that in the most recent school year, about 50 percent of students enrolled lived in the State College area.

“So our expectation is that we want to be a part of the process to see how much money is left, how much money should be left, and how that money should be disbursed, since we’re major contributor to that,” he said.

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The motion passed unanimously, with each board member voting yes.

During the process to renew Wonderland’s charter in June, Etter said the administration received unsolicited contact from people associated with the school — including board members, teachers and parents — raising concerns about its operation.

The district’s investigation into the school found “systematic” and “institutionalized” failures, particularly in the area of special education.

With very few exceptions, the report found that Wonderland overidentified students in the language impairment category by as much as 1,000 percent, while failing to identify students in any other disability category for at least a three-year span. It also showed alleged efforts from administrators to keep parents in the dark about what was happening in regard to their students’ learning.

The board agreed with Etter in June that the “longstanding” failures were so significant that the initiation of the nonrenewal/revocation proceeding was appropriate.

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Wonderland closed its doors prior to when a hearing could be held, citing “increasingly numerous costly and time-consuming requests, as well as intrusive, harassing and redundant inspections,” from the district as part of the charter renewal process.

Etter’s investigation has also uncovered potential health code and ethics violations, as well as financial concerns.

The full investigation into the operation of Wonderland Charter school is ongoing, Etter told the board in August, as they continue to gather information on additional ethics concerns, as well as questions about the building lease and trademark.