The line between public and private school is getting awfully thin in Pittsburgh.
City public school directors received a request from Imani Christian Academy, a religious school in the East Hills, to be allowed to transform into Imani Academy Charter School for the Fall term of 2019.
Though parochial schools have metamorphosed into charter schools in Florida, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., this would be the first such transformation in Pennsylvania, according to Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
The change would require Imani to give up its religious curriculum in exchange for being fully funded by taxpayer dollars.
However, there are numerous red flags in the school’s application that make one wonder if operators are being entirely honest about giving up a faith-based curriculum.
First, there is the proposal by the school, itself.
The application does not specify that religious values will be taught in the classroom. However, its personnel budget lists a comparative religion teacher on staff. The list of proposed teachers also includes a middle/high school religious studies teacher.
That’s not exactly common practice at most public schools though teaching about religion in a secular context is allowed.
“Public schools may not teach religion, although teaching about religion in a secular context is permitted. The Bible may be taught in a school, but only for its historical, cultural or literary value and never in a devotional, celebratory or doctrinal manner, or in such a way that encourages acceptance of the Bible as a religious document.”
Even so, it’s awfully convenient that a school whose mission statement currently includes “We share Christ with our children daily and seek to help them grow into mature Christians” would somehow magically become secular overnight.
If Imani’s charter is approved, it would be required to discontinue any religious component in its curriculum. The state school code requires even charter schools to be “nonsectarian in all operations.” The proposed academy would not be permitted to display any religious objects or symbols on the premises.
Yet one wonders who will check to make sure this actually happens.
Charter schools are not required to be nearly as transparent as fully public schools. They are not required to have open meetings of school directors, release their documents for public inspection or any of a host of other safeguards that you’ll find standard at the state’s hundreds of fully public districts.
Pennsylvania charter schools have had operators embezzle millions of dollars from taxpayers to buy private jets, apartments and jewelry. It took investigators years to uncover such graft.
Will the few auditors tasked with keeping charter schools honest even be equipped to determine whether parochial schools suddenly turned charter actually refrain from ministering to students?
According to Public Source, a nonprofit digital newspaper covering the Pittsburgh area, one of the qualities Imani is looking for in an operator for its charter school is the ability to use the school building after-school hours for religious instruction and activities.
So during the day, there will be an entirely secular K-12 school at the site of the present day parochial school that just happens to teach comparative religious studies. Then at a certain time of day, it will transform into an optional religious school offering church functions!?
But it’s not only the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution that is in danger of being trampled.
Imani’s proposal is not fiscally responsible.
The charter application proposes its CEO/head of school be paid a salary of $145,000 a year for an institution that would enroll merely 230 students.
Pittsburgh Public School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet earns a salary of $210,000 a year and he oversees a district with 24,652 students!
The proposed academy would also employ a principal at $85,000 annual salary.
That’s not exactly good reimbursement of services for the outlay of cash taxpayers are expected to pay.
Imani has struggled financially for several years.
In 2014, the school had more than $400,000 in additional expenses over its revenue, according to its form 990 filed with the IRS. The very next year, it had a budget surplus of almost the same amount. By 2016 – the most recent year on file – its expenses again were more than its revenue – this time by more than $500,000.
Imani CEO and Head of School Paulo Nzambi explained the up and down budgeting to state officials in 2017 this way. The parochial school relied on the state’s defacto school voucher program – the Education Improvement Tax Credit. However, payments were delayed resulting in the use of a line of credit to pay bills.
It’s just such financial uncertainties that are pushing Imani to become a charter school in the first place. Even with school vouchers, parochial schools rely heavily on tuition from parents. However, you always know where the money is coming from in a charter school. Like religious and private schools, these institutions are privately managed – but like public schools they’re funded entirely by taxpayers.
Before setting up shop, any new charter school in Pennsylvania must get the approval of the school board from the district where it would be located. If the board does not approve the application, charter school administrators can appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board.
Pittsburgh school board held a public hearing on Imani’s application in December and earlier this month. Next, the district’s review team will offer its suggestions on the application. District solicitor Ira Weiss says the board is scheduled to vote on the matter at its Feb. 27 meeting.
If approved, the district would be required to pay for each student at the new charter school based on the district’s per-student spending formula.
The Pittsburgh district already pays approximately $82.8 million – about 13 percent of its total budget – for charter school tuition.
Imani Christian Academy currently operates out of the former East Hills Elementary School building, which it purchased from the city school district for $1 million in 2008.
The objections brought up here are really just the tip of the iceberg.
The proposal leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, though the new academy would be located within the geographical boundaries of the Pittsburgh Public School District, where would it get its students from? Would current students at the religious school get preferential enrollment – and what if they don’t already live in and pay taxes to Pittsburgh?
Let’s hope Pittsburgh school directors do the right thing and deny this request.
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