Cyber charter school may call it quits

John Craig
John Craig
Posted: July 06, 2012

THE DECISION facing leaders of the Philly-based Frontier Virtual Charter High School is simple: Walk away now before things get even uglier.

The school's board — which on Saturday discussed optimistic plans for the upcoming school year — must decide at an afternoon meeting Thursday whether it's time to wave the white flag because the state Department of Education filed charges earlier this week to revoke the school's charter.

State education officials have said an investigation found that Frontier had numerous violations of the Charter School Law and failed to deliver the education and basic tools that it promised students.

But the rot apparently ran deeper than that.

Consider this line, from a trove of documents released Tuesday, outlining the state's case against the school: "Frontier incurred significant expenses and debt that were unrelated to the delivery of services to students of a cyber charter school, including purchases at restaurants, cash withdrawals that were not substantiated with receipts . . . and local transportation token purchases."

The school enrolled some students for the sole purpose of taking GED courses, and sent the bills to various school districts, according to the state documents.

The problem?

The Charter School Law prohibited Frontier from billing school districts for GED students, so the cyber school's administrators just didn't bother telling the districts what they were paying for, according to the documents.

One of the districts is the School District of Philadelphia, which was expected to pay Frontier $435,520 to educate 54 city students.

The school's problems became public in March, when the Daily News reported that Frontier's CEO, John Craig, had laid off the teaching staff and the principal, bringing the school year to a sudden halt.

The People Paper also reported that many of the school's students were habitually truant or failing, and that the school's administrators had failed to make sure that students were attending classes — allegations that state investigators found to be true.

So, when it became clear at the end of the school year that almost all of the school's 85 students were in need of a Hail Mary, Frontier's administrators — and a handful of part-time replacement teachers — cobbled together emergency "Save-My-Year" and "Credit Recovery" packets, according to the state documents.

The packets promised students that if they followed some simple directions — like cutting and pasting information about school subjects from various websites — they would pass.

According to the documents, one instructor offered this advice on how to compile a list of notable historical events: "For instance between JFK being assassinated and the Vietnam War, some guy named Martin Luther King was assassinated; you might want that to be part of your list of 20."

Martin Herring, an attorney representing eight former Frontier staffers who were in the process of unionizing a few days before they were laid off by Craig, said he was shocked at how poorly the cyber school had been managed.

"I've been practicing law for 52 years, and representing state educators for the last 36 years," Herring said, "and this is the most bizarre situation I have ever seen."

Herring filed an unfair-labor practice charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board on behalf of the former staffers, who worked for most of the school year for half-pay, and a hearing was held earlier this month. A judge's decision could be months away, Herring said.

Frontier's leaders, however, can no longer delay dealing with the school's seemingly insurmountable problems.

Brian Leinhauser, Frontier's attorney, said that the board had offered the state a proposal to keep the school open in September.

"The board was always going to reconsider the issue of whether to voluntarily surrender the charter, or go through the revocation hearings," he said.

Contact David Gambacorta at 215-854-5995 or gambacd@phillynews.com or on Twitter @dgambacorta.

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