Come Visit Your Wasted Tax Dollars at Commonwealth Charter Academy’s Waterfront Luxury Office Space

There’s plenty of fun to be had if you go to the Waterfront in Homestead, Pennsylvania.

There’s a Dave and Busters, Primate Bros, and even an AMC Loews’s multiplex movie theater.

But right across from the Barnes and Noble is a building with a neon green sign advertising its tenant – Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA).

This is the newest satellite office of the biggest cyber charter school network in the entire state! One of 51 locations statewide.

These are not your typical brick-and-mortar charter schools. They’re remote schools where students are taught at a distance via computer.

Like other charters, they’re still publicly financed, often privately run, and free from most safety precautions that ensure kids get a quality education at authentic public schools – things like being run by elected school boards, requiring entirely certified teachers, etc. But cyber charters don’t have to house children during the school day. They just need computers and Internet access.

Unfortunately, since Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, they have spread through at least 45 states. However, only 27 states also allow CYBER charters like this – schools that teach mostly (or entirely) distance learning through the Internet.

Nationwide, Pennsylvania and Ohio have the largest cyber charter enrollment. In 2020-21, the Keystone State enrolled 61,000 students in 14 cyber charters – and roughly 21,000 attend CCA!

Who would have thunk it?

Sometime since the deal was signed in 2021, the mega giant headquartered in Harrisburg opened a luxury charter school office during the Covid pandemic right here south of Pittsburgh – by Starbucks and the Venetian Spa!

Oh, sure! There’s an authentic public school in this neighborhood, too, right up the hill. It’s not located in nearly as trendy a spot though. Moreover, its four buildings were constructed around the 1970s and are crumbling down in places. But the new cyber charter school building looks like a palace!

According to Shannon Construction, the 62,000 sqft. space converted from a former Macy’s Department Store has:

“administrative offices, conference rooms, seminar areas, production labs and live session rooms. Some features include state of the art exterior lighting and signage, high-quality audio/visual and security equipment and 52 new perimeter windows to allow for ample natural lighting. The interior is complete with custom wall graphics, acoustical panels, wood plank ceilings, a fireplace and a Techworks room that provides users with a full digital experience.”

Wow! We paid for that!

It’s hard to imagine why a glorified office building where students don’t attend school needs to be so fancy. Or why it needs to be located on such prime real estate. With such high rents. On the public dime.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School nestled among residential homes on top of the hill. There’s no Panera nearby, but there is Munhall MiniMart just up the street.

We have no wood plank ceilings or Techworks rooms, but my classroom has fluorescent lights, a wipe board that doesn’t fully erase, wobbly tables and chairs, and no windows.

CCA doesn’t sound like a school. It sounds like a tech company. And I guess it kind of is.

The K-12 cyber network’s Homestead building isn’t designed for students – it’s designed for executives. The people who make the big bucks work here – though maybe there are a few teachers holed up here and there behind computers typing away to their students through screens across the state.

Much of the responsibility for these students doesn’t seem to rest with teachers. It belongs to their “learning coaches,” adults responsible for assisting kids at home – usually parents or guardians.

According to CCA’s Website, learning coaches are expected to spend five hours each school day helping elementary students with coursework and monitoring lessons, and between two and three hours a day with students in middle school.  

Why are we paying CCA again?

And how much are we paying them?

It turns out the so-called non-profit business, which in 2020 posted almost $39 million in net income, gets at least $10,000 per student. So given its enrollment figures, that’s at least $210 million a year – not counting additional money some districts have to provide. For each child from a district that enrolls in a cyber charter, the sending district pays the cyber a rate based on what the district spends on average per pupil – one rate for students in regular education and another for students with disabilities. This means that tuition rates paid to a particular cyber school can be vastly different.  

But since online charters have far lower operating costs than brick-and-mortar schools of any stripe, we end up overpaying them nearly every time.

I guess that’s why CCA has enough money to pay $19 million on marketing from 2019 – 2021, including getting a promotional TV spot in a Thanksgiving Parade, according to Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

CCA spends millions of dollars each school year on advertising. For example, in its 2018-19 IRS Form 990, a required disclosure for all nonprofits, CCA reported that it paid $8.5 million to Bravo Group, an advertising, marketing, and lobbying firm.  

CCA is sitting on so much extra money, it can afford to offer families cash reimbursements of $200 for monthly field trips.

But, of course, these trips aren’t always of much educational value. They’ve gone to petting zoos, laser tag, bowling and kayaking. A parent of a CCA student even bragged on Facebook about using these funds for Dave and Busters Arcade, a Motley Crue concert, Eagles tickets, and family vacations to Universal Studios and Disney, according to Education Voters of Pa.

Can you imagine taking your kids to an expensive theme park, or going to see an NFL game, or seeing Motley Crue play “Shout at the Devil” on the public dime?

Does that sound nice? Absolutely.

But is it fair to all the other schools in the state starving for enough money just to keep the lights on? Is it fair to kids in extra large classes, without new textbooks, and dealing with mold in the bathrooms?

Moreover, is it a good learning strategy to get kids to sit in front of a computer for 30 days with the promise of a field trip at the end of the month?

One thing’s for sure – it doesn’t seem to be getting academic results. CCA’s 4th and 8th grade reading scores in 2018-19, for example, were the worst in the state. 

Only 28.8% of CCA students achieved proficiency on English Language Arts and Math PSSA exams on a two-year, combined basis, according to state Department of Education data. The school’s growth score was negative – so they actually regressed academically. They would have done better not to have even gone to school! 

Moreover, the school’s graduation rate falls well below statewide averages and state goals. Its four-year cohort graduation rate is 53%; its five-year rate is 67%; and its six-year rate is 70%. For the 2018-19 school year, more than 10% of CCA students dropped out. That’s about twice as many as the average rate for charter schools and seven times as many as the average rate for authentic public school districts.

 

In short, the school’s performance ranks among the bottom 5% of schools statewide.

In the commonwealth, cyber charters were first allowed in 2002. They are authorized by the state Department of Education and operate statewide.

Which begs the question – has the state been doing its job to hold this cyber charter network accountable? According to the Times Tribune, CCA hasn’t been audited by the state in a decade, though the school disputes this fact and a press release claimed it has independent audits.

I don’t know about you, but as a teacher, parent and taxpayer in the Commonwealth, none of this makes me happy.

The best I can do is come down to the Waterfront and see the result of all this tax money – mine and yours – in a beautiful new building that isn’t doing anything to help students learn.

If you want an even closer look inside CCA, indeed.com has you covered. The site allowed employees or former employees of companies to review their places of work.

While there were a few reviews that were entirely positive of CCA schools across the state, the overwhelming majority were incredibly negative.

Take an unfiltered look at the inside of CCA:


Stressful, not flexible  

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – September 24, 2022 

CCA has changed for staff. They are no longer flexible and change requirements and hours with no notice. Staff need to read the administration’s mind to determine the new rules and regulations that changed continually. Work life balance is a struggle with this school.  

I’d pass on this one. 

High School Special Education Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – December 2, 2022 

CCA started out as a great place to work. Unfortunately, it quickly went down hill. Management had little spies that taught among us and reported back. I felt like I was in grade school all over again. The number of students on any given caseload is 60+ students. It was almost impossible to progress monitor, make phone calls, and complete all necessary paperwork on time. The expectation was to work 12 hour days as well as nights and weekends. No life for you. As time went on management became very top heavy. If you had a target on your back you might as well hang it up. They don’t really help you to improve even though they say they do. Burn out comes quickly and upper management could careless. Professionalism does not exist in this place especially from upper management. CCA does not support you as a teacher. You can easily be replaced and they will. 
Pros 
Flexible Schedule 
Cons 

Everything else….Management, Caseload numbers, Professionalism, etc. 

2 Stars

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pennsylvania – October 12, 2022 

What is the best part of working at the company?
Teaching students and coworkers. 

What is the most stressful part about working at the company?
Middle and upper management lack of communication, lack of flexibility, low pay.

What is the work environment and culture like at the company?
Not healthy. Upper management claims to listen but they don’t implement any suggestions. 

What is a typical day like for you at the company?
8-4 pm teaching, phone calls, grades, etc. 

Poor communication and lack of professionalism  

Administrative Assistant (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – August 9, 2022 

Upper management at CCA is unprofessional, some downright rude, and has extremely poor communication. No training or onboarding process, upper management doesn’t seem to know or care what most employees do on a day to day basis, and the environment is unhealthy both physically and mentally. Disappointing that when concerns were even expressed to the CEO, no response was even given at all. There seems to me a mindset that if given bonus money; $1,00 to $5,000 taxed money, periodically, that everything is great, which is not the case and it doesn’t reflect anything other than a means to disperse unused profits, especially since it’s been given to employees regardless of their length of employment or job performance. 
CCA is lacking integrity and are not what they claim to be in media advertising or to parents.  

Here is my view 

Administrative Assistant (Current Employee) – Allentown, PA – July 5, 2022 

“Equality” is not something that is known for the staff at this company. If you are not in the main office or a teacher you are treated like the “red headed step child”. They care more about money than making sure their staff is financially or mentally taken care of.  
Cons 
Pay, Flexibility 

 

A changing company/school that supports family. 

Family Mentor (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 5, 2022 

This position can be fun but also compromising . You can be promised one area then it be changed to an impossible location. Taking too much time to be worth the pay. When location is favorable then the job is great. 

No Work Life Balance 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – February 13, 2022 

Great benefits, but at the cost of your sanity and peace. No work life balance. A constant push for in office/ in person during a Pandemic. If you’re single with no kids and no life this is a great fit.  
Pros 
Benefits and shiny buildings 
Cons 

Literally no life. 

My manger changes 5 times in 6 months.  

Success coach (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – December 16, 2021 

The new managers don’t know anything but are supposed to be your supervisor. You don’t get paid when the kids aren’t there so the job is like part time pay.  
Pros 
Benefits are amazing! 
Cons 
No advancement, very little direction. 

 

Not a good company to work for  

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 20, 2021 

Management says one thing and does another thing. Too many managers that don’t communicate with employees very well. Not understanding when personal issues arise  
Pros 
Great technology 
Cons 
Too many chiefs not enough Indians 

Not worth it 

Accounting Clerk (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 4, 2021 

Never felt comfortable with coworkers from day one. Also management was very unpleasant and spent way more time than necessary watching employees at their desks. They had seriously ridiculous expectations on performance after only a few weeks on the job. It was expected that I would just know how to do something I had just been trained on and do that task perfectly. Not worth the stress and anxiety it caused. 
Pros 
Great benefits 
Cons 
Toxic work environment 

Collaboration but inconsistent management, disjointed and unqualified leadership, unprofessional behavior, no training, inappropriate expectations 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Pennsylvania – December 19, 2020 

Sounds and looks much better to work there than to actually work there. Stressful, lack of communication, no consistency, lack of professionalism, focus on avoiding legal issues is driving force, facade of supportive atmosphere and family like environment. Work life balance is zero.  
Pros 
Remote 
Cons 
Totally inconsistent and poor leadership 

Authentic Leadership Is Nonexistent at CCA 

Career Facilitation Coordinator (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – June 29, 2020 

CCA cannot be great under current leadership. During my time there, it became evident that students are not at the center of this organization, but instead, the selfish interests of senior leadership prevails (note: I use the term leadership loosely). Among many things, the culture of micromanagement is toxic, resulting in unbelievably high turnover in certain positions. In a functional organization, senior leadership would work to mitigate this issue. Here, matters such as this are swept under the rug. For whatever reason, certain “Directors” are protected and there is no accountability. Professionals are not treated as such and their expertise is grossly undervalued. HR is not objective and gossipy…especially at the senior level, which is extremely unprofessional to say the least. If you’re searching for an innovative and inclusive organization which promotes growth and cohesion, KEEP LOOKING. If you decide to interview, do your best to find out the history of your position. If offered a position, run far and fast. 
Pros 
Nice building 
Cons 
Zero accountability, culture of nepotism, inauthentic leaders 

Save yourself the agony 

Unlisted (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – April 19, 2020 

Horrible place to work, bad management, inadequate pay. There is no flexibility and employees are not valued at all. Every day of my time there was miserable. 
Pros 
None 
Cons 
Everything 

Teachers are micromanaged and required to complete tasks that do not improve students’ education. 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pennsylvania – February 22, 2020 

The school’s administration is very top-heavy. Teachers’ salaries are low compared to peers in brick and mortar schools. Workload among teachers is not fairly distributed. Teachers are required to award grades to students that do not reflect their learning. Students are awarded up to 35% of their grades for ‘participation’ that does not assure that actual learning took place. 

The hardest part of the job is not being able to engage the many students who use the cyber-school setting to avoid going to school. The administration does not put adequate resources to removing these students from the school. 

 

Poor organizational structure doesn’t support teachers 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – February 17, 2020 

Teachers aren’t valued much. Young and inexperienced administrators hand picked if they are yes-men to upper administrators push teachers to the limit. Upper administration has alternative agendas, and the ‘school’ is a company to them. Office cubes are loud and not conducive to work. 

Stressful, not flexible  

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – September 24, 2022 

CCA has changed for staff. They are no longer flexible and change requirements and hours with no notice. Staff need to read the administration’s mind to determine the new rules and regulations that changed continually. Work life balance is a struggle with this school.  

Little Guidance From School 

Instructional Assistant (Former Employee) – Ligonier, PA – July 7, 2019 

I worked as an in-home IA with a special needs student. There was almost no guidance from the school as far as coursework, deadlines, etc. All of my student’s goals came from the BCBA, and the school had very little to offer in terms of direction. The first paycheck came two months late, and there were no benefits involved , as it was an independent contractor position. On the plus side, though, with the relaxed approaches to education, it was quite easy to allow the student to work on subjects that interested him, and it was nice to have that kind of independence when it came to planning the school days. 
Pros 
Flexibility, relaxed environment, student home-based options, pay. 
Cons 
Little guidance, hard to contact the school, communication in general. 

Once Upon a Time, CCA was a Wonderful Company But Now…. 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – June 8, 2019 

When I started at CCA back in 2009, the CEO was Dennis Tulli. He was a wonderful leader who truly cared not only about the students & their families but also every employee who worked for him. He made sure his staff was compensated fairly and provided free health care benefits (no monthly premium) for teachers & their families. Providing CCA met their yearly goals, generous monetary bonuses were given to all employees in September. When Dr. Tulli left and Dr. Flurrie took over, the culture slowly began to change. More and more responsibilities were added to all employees but especially teachers w/o any duties being removed. Night & weekend hours became mandatory but again, there was no compensation. Many veteran teachers, who were making a decent yearly salary, were forced out so they could be replaced by younger less experienced teachers at half the salary. Raises became smaller, w/the exception of this CEO & his senior leadership team, and bonuses all but disappeared. Dr. Flurrie made it known that all employees were replaceable so the theme became “be grateful you’ve got a job here”. Over a 2 year time frame, the culture slowly changed from a democracy, where you could voice your concerns or ideas and know you would be heard, to a micromanaged dictatorship, run from the top down. If you are an older woman, do not expect any advancement opportunities. This CEO primarily gives advancement opportunities to men and young, attractive women. Under Dr. Tulli and for the first year under Dr. Flurrie, there was very little turnover. Once Dr. Flurrie’s “honeymoon” period was over as a CEO, true colors began to show. From his second year to now, the turnover rate has continued to consistently increase. Keeping special education teachers has become a real challenge. We used to be able to work from home but the majority of those positions have been removed so plan to report to an office everyday. Bottom line, if you think CCA is better a option than the traditional brick/mortar schools, you are mistaken. This CEO has eliminated any incentives to choose this company over the traditional public school. –  
Pros 
New state-of-the-art building, travel expenses reimbursed, coworkers are generally very friendly/helpful people 
Cons 
CEO’s ever increasing ego, smothered by micromanaging administrators, no more work from home/bonuses, low salaries/negligible raises 

Stressful environment 

Success Coach Coordinator (Former Employee) – Philadelphia, PA – December 27, 2018 

This was a stressful and uninviting environment. No room for advancement. Would not recommend others to a position with this community. Management upgrades are needed. 

Workplace drone 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – October 24, 2018 

As the company continues to grow, so does the ego of the CEO and management. Little thought is considered for the professional teaching staff and all teachers are “replaceable.” Don’t even ask for a work from home day. I miss the old management style of Connections Academy. 

Productive and great team atmosphere 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 13, 2018 

CCA is a growing school but be very careful as they grow what do they forget? The special education and general ed caseloads are so high but the school will not increase staff as they leave. 
Pros 
Health insurance, team atmosphere with team 
Cons 
Micro managed every step, no voice, top down management, non elected school board 

Sucks the life out of you

Teacher (Former Employee) – PA – February 3, 2018
Coworkers were wonderful, but the company is not run well and is frustrating and takes advantage of their workers. The highest levels of management are unaware of what the underlings are doing and don’t send a message that employees are valued.

Pros

Collaborrating with coworkers, supporting one another.

Cons

The worst most incompetent employees are the ones who get promoted.

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Fact Checking Propel Charter Schools – Do They Live Up to Their Own Hype?

The Propel Charter School network has a history of making fabulous claims for its schools – claims not always backed up by reality.

The non-profit chain of 13 schools based in Pittsburgh, Pa, boasts high academics, safe campuses and certified teachers.

At least, that’s what its advertising blitz proclaims from every grocery store cart, newspaper page, radio announcement and billboard. Which just goes to show that anyone will tout your virtues if you pay them enough money – taxpayer money, that is.

Take Propel McKeesport – the franchise located in my own neighborhood.

The other day I saw a bus advertisement bragging:

“Catch Your Star!

#1 Elementary Charter School in the Nation – Just Blocks Away!

Propel McKeesport”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any support for this claim anywhere.

When I went to Propel’s own Website, in fact, there was nothing about it. Instead, it claimed Propel McKeesport was:

“…ranked as ONE OF THE BEST charter schools in the nation by U.S. News World Report” (Emphasis mine).

One of the best is not THE best. But it’s still good. Let’s call it embellishing the school’s resume.

According to Propel’s Website, in 2021, the McKeesport location was #11 in the state’s charter elementary schools and #7 in the state’s charter middle schools.


I suppose that is impressive, too, though being one of the best CHARTER SCHOOLS isn’t the same as being one of the best SCHOOLS.

In fact, when compared with all schools in the state, Propel McKeesport is in the bottom half for standardized test scores in both math and reading – one of the main metrics used to calculate its rank by US News and World Report.

The percentage of students achieving proficiency in math was 7% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 38%) for the 2020-21 school year. The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading was 34% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 55%) for the 2020-21 school year.

Moreover, test scores in both subjects were higher at the McKeesport Area School District, the local authentic public school – 17% higher in math and 3.5% higher in reading at the elementary level and 6% higher in math and 2% higher in reading at the middle school level. Propel McKeesport does not teach beyond 8th grade.

So what exactly is Propel celebrating?

Maybe it’s the fact that its McKeesport location achieved these standardized test scores while teaching an intensely racially segregated student body – 86% minority (mostly Black). By comparison, the authentic public schools range from 52-71% minority students (mostly Black).

I’m not sure that’s much of a victory. Wasn’t one of the major tenants of the civil rights movement having racially integrated schools – that doing so would help students of color achieve academically because resources couldn’t be horded away from them?

That still sounds like a worthy goal – and one that is being actively worked against by Propel’s business model.

Moreover, Propel McKeesport is the only school in the charter chain where students of color outscore white students. Across the Propel system, white kids do anywhere from 17.6% better in math at Propel Pitcairn to 32.6% better in science at Propel Braddock Hills.

Not exactly a civil rights victory.

So what about the rest of Propel’s claims?

Since charter schools are paid for with tax dollars but can be privately operated (like Propel), they are free from many of the safety regulations that make authentic public schools great – like elected school boards, and transparent curriculum and finances.

The corporation runs the following schools in Allegheny County: Propel Andrew Street High School, Propel Hazelwood K-8, Propel Montour Middle School, Propel Braddock Hills Elementary School, Propel Homestead K-8, Propel Northside K-8, Propel McKeesport K-8, Propel Pitcairn K-8, Propel Braddock Hills High School, Propel Montour Elementary School, Propel Braddock Hills Middle School, Propel Montour High School, and Propel East K-8.

According to an advertisement in mass circulation, each of the schools in the charter chain provides:

“Safe Learning Environment

Individual Attention


Small Class Size

100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Award Winning Arts Programs

Leaders in Technology Integration

Uniforms

Tuition Free”

Let’s take a look at each claim in turn.

-Safe Learning Environment

What exactly does that mean?

Propel schools are no more safe than other schools in the area. There certainly isn’t any evidence they are somehow MORE safe.

There have been numerous incidents of arrest, criminality and danger in and around Propel Schools.

In 2021, a security guard at Turtle Creek, Pitcairn and McKeesport Propel Schools was fired after being charged with open lewdness and indecent exposure, according to court documents. North Versailles Police said the suspect was captured on video exposing and fondling himself inside a Walmart. When confronted by police, he allegedly showed officers his Propel School ID badge.

In 2015, two teenagers at Propel Braddock Hills High School were arrested after one allegedly tried to sell guns to another in a bathroom during the school day. Two guns were recovered by police and the students were taken into custody on campus. The rest of the students were placed on lockdown until police cleared the area.

In 2015, a visiting dance instructor at the Propel Middle School in Braddock was fired and arrested after allegedly sexting a 13-year-old female student. He allegedly told the girl not to tell anyone about it. In a statement from Propel, school officials say it happened “after school hours and off of Propel property.”

In 2019, Pitcairn Propel was evacuated when fumes made three teachers and four students nauseous. Roughly 280 teachers and students were evacuated from the school and the affected people were taken to nearby hospitals. Monroeville Borough was doing work on a sewer when fumes got into the school.

In 2019, police arrested four people in connection with a scheme to steal nearly $23,000 from Propel Schools by forging checks in the charter school operator’s name. The Propel Schools Foundation filed a report with police after discovering nearly two dozen fraudulent checks in Propel’s name had been cashed at various places, a Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman said. At least 28 checks drawn against the school’s bank account were counterfeit, the complaint said. The fake checks were cashed using the forged signature of the school’s co-founder, Jeremy Resnick.

So does Propel provide a safe learning environment? Maybe. But not more so than any other district.

Individual Attention and Small Class Size


The problem here is verification.

Charter schools are not nearly as transparent as authentic public schools. They are not required by law to provide as much information about their operations as neighborhood public schools. For instance, nearly every authentic public school district is run by an elected school board which has open meetings and open records.

For Propel it is unclear exactly how members are chosen for its corporate board, but it is difficult for parents and community members to be appointed.

According to an article in Public Source, individuals can only become board members if they are already members of the “Friends of Propel,” but the charter chain did not provide information on this group or how its members are selected.

So for most details we’re really left with just taking Propel’s word without any method of verifying it.

When it comes to class size, most Propel schools report having student-to-teacher ratios slightly smaller or the same as at neighborhood authentic public schools. But who knows? There’s no way to tell whether classes may actually be larger.

However, individual attention is even harder to verify.

Most schools focus on more individual attention these days.

Unfortunately, the network provides very little detailed information about its curriculum.

Even in 2018 when Propel had submitted applications to the state to consolidate its network into a Multiple Charter School Organization, it did not submit its entire curriculum which had been requested to see if it was aligned to state academic standards. The state ultimately denied this request due to insufficient information.

So does Propel provide individual attention? Your guess is as good as mine.

-100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Authentic public schools need to have certified and qualified teachers by law. To teach math, for example, you usually need someone with at least a 4-year teaching degree or more. Only in the case of shortages can positions by temporarily filled by individuals with emergency certifications. Not so with charter schools. They only have to have certified and qualified teachers in core content areas – English, Math, Science and Social Studies.

So this claim by Propel is a way of bragging that the network doesn’t have to have certified and qualified teachers, but it does so anyway.

Unfortunately, it is definitively false.

According to those US News and World Report spotlights that the charter school network likes to highlight, several Propel schools do not have all certified teachers. For instance, Propel McKeesport only has 92% full-time certified teachers, Propel Homestead only has 94%, Propel Pitcairn only has 96%, etc.

Moreover, a state audit of the Propel network conducted in 2016, found that even in core content areas, Propel charter schools did not have “highly qualified” teachers in accordance with state law.

So does Propel have 100% Certified and Qualified Teachers? Absolutely not.

Award Winning Arts Programs

Kudos to Propel for recognizing that arts are an important part of the curriculum. Or at least using it as a selling point on its advertisements. However, without details of its curriculum submitted to the state and verifiable by audit, there is nothing to back this claim up factually.

In fact, on Propel’s own Website, the only reference I see to awards for art is a brief mention in its after-school program which they label as “award-winning.”

What award did it win? The ‘Propel Presents Itself with an Award’ Award? Is there anything more substantial to this claim?

-Leaders in Technology Integration

Some Propel charter schools do claim to provide laptops to students. However, details are pretty sketchy beyond this point.

Moreover, technology in school is a terrible end in itself. It really matters how it’s being used. There are very few details on this that I can find.

-Uniforms

Yes! Propel does require students to wear blue, black or khaki clothing of a particular type. And you can even buy clothing on the network’s Website.

But is this really such a positive? Standardized testing is bad enough? Do we have to standardized dress, too?

Certainly every school should have a dress code, but can’t students express themselves freely anymore? I just don’t see why emulating the worst qualities of private schools is a great thing – especially when it adds an unnecessary cost for parents.

-Tuition Free

Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars. So, yes, you don’t have to pay a tuition to attend. However, you do have to pay for extras like school uniforms.

Also having multiple schools that provide duplicate services is instrumental in raising your local taxes.

Think about it. You already have an authentic public school you pay to operate. Now here comes Propel, a charter school network, demanding to open up shop. That means an additional tax burden on all residents and a reduction in resources for the neighborhood schools already in service.

In fact, overcoming the unpopularity of charter schools because of the increased expense for taxpayers is cited by Droz Marketing – the company that made all those glossy Propel advertisements – on its Website portfolio as an obstacle the company had to overcome to sell Propel to the masses.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

Does Propel go beyond the facts in its claims for itself?

Certainly.

Many businesses do that these days. And make no mistake – Propel IS a business. If it can cut a corner or find a loophole to put more money in operators’ pockets, it will.

Don’t let its non-profit status fool you.

For instance, in 2016 the state caught Propel stealing $376,922 of your tax dollars to pay for rental fees on properties it already owns. It was literally charging itself an unnecessary fee and paying itself with your money.

Technically, this is not illegal. But it certainly doesn’t help educate children. It just goes to enrich the charter school operators.

Non-profit? Yeah, in name only.

However, let me end with what may be the most telling indicator of what it is like at Propel’s charter schools.

indeed.com is a Website workers use to decide if they should apply at a given job site. Employees anonymously review their current place of employment to let prospective job applicants know what it is like there and if they should consider seeking a job there.

The site has many entries on schools in the Propel network. Some are positive. Some are glowing. But most are incredibly negative.

Here in their own words is what it’s like inside the Propel network from the people who work (or worked) there.

Propel Schools – Insiders’ Accounts:

 

 

Students rule.

Para Educator (Former Employee) – Propel East, Turtle Creek – July 19, 2020

Pandering to the cultural climate and using all the right talking points still doesn’t provide a quality education because of the many behavior problems.

 

 

 

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – August 4, 2022

Management verbalizes a desire, but does not actively seek to improve diversity within the ranks of educators. The lack of diversity directly impacts how the student body is educated.

 

Stressful, consuming place to work with little support from administration.

First Grade Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – April 15, 2022
I worked at Propel McKeesport for 9 days before I realized it would negatively affect my mental health greatly if I stayed. Everything about the school was chaotic and unorganized. There is so much asked of the teachers, and they are given little to no support in the process. The people that are put in place to act as supports are spread so thin, that you aren’t able to receive the support necessary. I would have to get to work early and stay late in order to get all of my tasks done. I had no time for my personal life, and I was constantly overwhelmed. Leaving was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my well being.
Pros
Higher than average starting pay for new teachers, healthcare benefits
Cons
Unorganized, consuming, little support/structure

 

 

Hope you have a good therapist if you get hired at the Hazelwood location.

Elementary School Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – February 3, 2022
My time at Propel Hazelwood was the worst experience I have ever had in a professional setting. The principal, at the time, had all sorts of big ideas, and no clue how to make them actionable. Behavior was managed through a failed token economy… so I’m sure you can imagine what behavior looked like. But good news, they’ll just fire you before you qualify for benefits, and trick the next poor sap. For reference, I was the 3rd of 5 teachers to go through that position in 2 years.

In summary, I hope you line up a therapist before you sign your soul away to Propel. I know I needed one.
Pros
There were no pros. I can’t even make one up.
Cons
Pitiful everything. People, leadership, attitudes, slogans, curriculum (or lack there of). Run away… fast.

 

 

Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – September 3, 2021
Propel McKeesport cannot keep their staff members. They have so many open positions because their lesson plan template is 6 pages long, and the work pile-up is more than loving your scholars. The wonderful scholars don’t get a chance to love who you are because you (if you are not a favorite) are swamped with work. The job is a nightmare.
Pros
There is not one pro I can think of.
Cons
Flooded with work. Lies and says it is “Propel-Wide”

 

Don’t work for them

Janitor (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 3, 2022

Hr treats you bad
Teachers treat you bad
You are less then nothing to everyone even your bosses
Never work for Braddock propel worst school I’ve seen
Pros
Nothing
Cons
You will be treated like you are worthless

 

Pure and total chaos

Teacher (Former Employee) – Braddock Hills, PA – September 27, 2021
Wow. It sounds good from the outside but is terrible in the inside. High school students were out of control. Administration offered little help. The parents were just as aggressive as their children. The teachers will throw anyone under the bus as soon as possible.
Pros
Great pay. Amazing benefits. Stellar retirement and health insurance.
Cons
Terribly behaved students, aggressive parents, woke and offended staff

 

Long school day, longer school year, longest time spent working outside of contractual hours

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – May 21, 2021
Even though I went in knowing the hours would be long and the school year would be longer, I was not prepared for the lack of work life balance. I have worked with Propel for 3 years and I will say that it is all consuming. I have been expected to not only do my job during building hours, but outside of work as well. This would be fine if it was occasional, but especially during COVID, it has become constant. Not only is the work never ending, but in my buildng we are not given adequate time to eat (25 minutes) or plan (50 minutes, but this time is often taken up by meetings almost daily). On top of limited planning time and expectations that never seem to stop coming, many of us have been forced into taking on additional, unpaid roles that we did not ask or agree to, and “no thank you” is not accepted as an answer. The district struggles to employee substitutes, so teachers are often expected to split classes when other grade level members are out. This has resulted in 30+ students in classrooms during non-COVID times, with one educator.
Pros
Good benefits, reasonable pay for the area, great curriculum
Cons
Short breaks, underqualified building administration, limited support

 

Schools care for kids but profit can get in the way

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 13, 2021
Propel staff does care a lot about the students, but it doesn’t feel like those who are higher up care as much about them. Having a CEO/Superintendent may be the reason for this.
Pros
Dedicated cohorts
Cons
Work-life balance off

 

Administration had a lack of trust for teachers and lack of discipline for students.

teacher (Former Employee) – Montour, PA – July 24, 2020
There was always a feeling of being watched in a critical way throughout the day. Administration was constantly evaluating teacher performance in the classroom which created a negative work environment.
When a student became disruptive in the classroom administrators were difficult to locate. If an administrator did come to the classroom he/she would coddle the student with candy or a fun activity before returning him/her to the classroom. Needless to say the disruptive behavior would continue within an hour. Positive effective leadership was nonexistent.

 

Not very friendly

Accounting Manager (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – March 4, 2020
Did not get the job I was hired to do. Turnover was high. Cannot speak to majority of the the issues that I had due to a clause in my severance package.

 

Ehhh.

Educator (Former Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – February 3, 2020
Challenging work environment, burn out is high, little support from administration. Propel varies from building to building, but overall its sounds great in theory and in their “plans”, but they’re not able to carry out what they promise to students or staff.

 

This is a good ole boys system

Principal (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 26, 2020
Pros: Let me start by saying, the students are amazing! The parents can be challenging but they truly want what’s best for their children. Cons: If you aren’t LIKED by the superintendent and assistant superintendent your days with Propel are numbered. From the onset, I was deceived by this organization. I spent 4-months interviewing for a High School principal position. I was offered the position of high school principal only to find out I would be a K-8 principal. This was the first red flag of many. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well liked therefore I received very little of what I needed to effectively lead the school. Instead, I got the unhelpful support they thought I needed and none of which I requested. By Feb. I had lost both my APs – one by choice and the other by force. In March I was given a replacement AP that wasn’t a good fit. Work-life balance does NOT exist at Propel Charter Schools. On average, I worked 12 -14-hour days. Sadly, this is the norm for principals in this network. If you are considering Propel for a position as a school administrator, I would not recommend it.
 
 
Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – September 18, 2019
The staff is wonderful and very supportive. However, the students there are very disrespectful, rude, and have major problems with authority. As a teacher walking into the classroom, they refuse to listen, talk over you, cuss you, and not a lot is done about it.

Cons

Being cussed at and put down by students daily
 
 
 

Poor working place

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 10, 2019
Propel is not ran like a school, it is ran like a business. They do not give the students a fighting chance for a bright future. They are more worried about the name ‘propel’ than anything. The work-life balance is awful. They expect way too much of your own time and when they don’t get it, you are looked down on for it. They create cliques and if you are not in the clique, consider yourself gone. They place you wherever they want, certified or not, and will watch you fail. There is lack of help and support from the administration. The only decent people around are your co-workers. I would never recommend this as a work environment nor for parents to send their kids there. No learning takes place. You constantly deal with behavior problems while the children who want to learn are put on the back burner. They change rules half way into the school year and fudge their data. At the rate they are going, they will never compare to peers across the state for PSSAs due to behavior issues and poor management. Not to mention, your lunch is 20 minutes so I hope you can eat fast and 9X out of 10, your planning time to taken away from you for meetings! Be prepared for meetings!!!

Pros

Good benefits

Cons

Everything
 
 
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – May 6, 2017
There was little time to be able to practice individualized teaching practices and spend time working with students. Leaders were only focused on enrollment and test scores, and did not focus on the important needs of the child. Work/Home life balance did not exist, as emails and texts were sent at 9:00 PM at night. Money is the number one focus, and for a school system, it was not what was expected.

Pros

Teaching children, benefits and compensation

Cons

Bad work/home life balance

 


 

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An Open Letter to Josh Shapiro Asking Him to Reject School Vouchers 


 

Dear Josh Shapiro, 


 
Are you for public education or not?

I only ask because as the Democratic candidate for Governor in Pennsylvania, you come off as the savior of schools and children on the campaign trail.

You say you want to increase state funding to public schools. Wonderful!

You say you want to reduce standardized testing. Excellent!

You want to guarantee every student has access to technical and vocational courses and make sure every school building has at least one dedicated mental health counselor on staff. Outstanding!

But in interviews and on your campaign Website, you say you’re in favor of school vouchers!

Wha-Wha-What!?

Did Charles Koch just hack your election headquarters? Is Betsy DeVos impersonating you in the media?

Because supporting school vouchers does not fit in at all with someone who claims to champion public education.

Public education means public schools. It means tax dollars being used to fund public schools and those schools being run by elected school boards.

It does not mean tax dollars going to private and parochial schools. It does not mean our money going to institutions where we get no say in how it’s spent. It does not mean circumventing duly elected school boards. It does not mean the public paying for religious indoctrination or the kind of right wing biased education routinely provided at private schools.

But that’s what school vouchers do.

They steal taxpayer dollars from authentic public schools and allow them to be wasted on private and parochial schools. They destroy any accountability for how our collective money is spent and do serious harm to thousands of the most struggling authentic public school students while lining the pockets of private companies and religious institutions.

And the separation of church and state – forget about it!

This doesn’t sound like the candidate teachers like me have been backing since before this election cycle began. Frankly, it’s almost what your gubernatorial opponent, MAGA Republican Doug Mastriano, champions.

Mastriano – a Trump insurrectionist – says he wants to use state education funding to give EVERY student a school voucher they can use at almost any school in the Commonwealth – public, private or parochial.

You seem to want vouchers ONLY for students at the most underfunded and struggling schools.

Well that’s some distinction!

Instead of providing more support to the most inequitably funded schools, you want to slash their funding even more in the name of some old time Republican plan to let a few escape a bad situation while the rest all drown!?

That is repulsive!

On your your campaign Website it says


 Josh favors adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania. 


 
In an interview in the Patriot News you say


 “And I’m for making sure we add scholarships like lifeline scholarships to make sure that that’s additive to their education. That it gives them other opportunities…to be able to help them achieve success”  

These so-called Lifeline Scholarships are a Republican lead measure to give direct-to-student tax-funded scholarships that parents and guardians in the state’s most neglected public schools could use for a variety of options including going toward tuition at a different school.

The GOP sponsored bill passed the state House of Representatives in April on a 104-98 vote and cleared the state Senate Education Committee in June. However, because of an amendment to protect low performing charter schools from losing their funding, it would still need final passage votes in both chambers before getting to current Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk where he would almost certainly veto it.

It would affect about 191,000 students in 382 schools, across 76 of the state’s 500 school districts. However, Two-thirds of the cost of the program (63.1%) is born by four districts – Philadelphia (43.9%), Reading (8.9%), Allentown (5.8%) and Pittsburgh (4.5%).

This would create another taxpayer funded system of education. Affected districts would lose so much funding it would ultimately force them to reduce programs, services, and staffing and/or raise property taxes to compensate.

Moreover, these would be the most neglected districts, and thus the least able to support the cost.

It’s a terrible idea, and I can’t understand why you would buck the overwhelming majority of your party and would-be constituents to support it.

Is it because you send your own kids to a faith-based private school, and that you are the product of just such an education, yourself?

This is how you lose votes, Sir.

Your opponent is perhaps the most odious person to ever run for Governor in the state. He looks to usher in an era of theocratic fascism, curtail human rights and take the Commonwealth back to the Middle Ages.

But that doesn’t mean you should run closer to his positions in the vain hope of stealing some of his base.

The MAGA Republicans will never vote for you. Dressing yourself up in their clothing will not help you do anything but disgust your own supporters until some can’t bring themselves to vote at all.

As election day nears, the polls get closer and closer between Mastriano and you.

Pennsylvanians can’t afford losing their only chance at self rule because of demoralization and despair at a candidate too weak to support the platform he began this campaign on – championing public education.

I urge you to reconsider this flirtation with Republican values and school vouchers.

I hope you are better than this.

We deserve a governor who is better than this.

Please have the courage to stand by authentic public schools.

Yours,

Steven Singer


Tell Josh Shapiro what you think. Email him here: contact@joshshapiro.org


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What my PA Public School Classroom Would Look Like under Gov. Doug Mastriano

Just one teacher. And 33 kids.

That’s what my classroom would look like if Pennsylvanians vote for Doug Mastriano as our next governor.

The Republican state representative wants to slash education budgets in half – yes, IN HALF!

And that means doubling class size – at least.

Honestly, I don’t know how we’d cram all the desks in the room. I can barely fit 15 in there now.

Where would we put the books, computers and cabinets? The students, alone, would be wall-to-wall.

Just imagine that many middle school kids stuffed into the room arguing about who’s touching who and which classmate stole their pencil or book. Not to mention the children striving to get my attention to solve disputes, get help with classwork, ask permission to use the bathroom – and a thousand other issues!

I’d try my best to meet their needs but under Mastriano we just wouldn’t have the resources we used to have.

For example, there’s no way we could afford a school nurse at each building like we have today. We’d be lucky to have one nurse for all four buildings in the district – elementary schools, middle schools and the high school. If a student feels sick, there’s not much I could do except send the child to the office to try to call home and get a parent or guardian to pick the kid up early. And if the parents can’t make it, just let the kid put his or her head down?

What if the issue’s more psychological? There might be a school counselor somewhere in the district so a student can talk out an issue he or she is having – perhaps conflict resolution with a former friend, discuss peer pressure to try drugs or maybe deal with suicidal thoughts. But there’s probably a long waiting list to see this mythical counselor. Hopefully, the problem is not too urgent.

I feel especially bad for the special education students. Aides would be almost non-existent so many kids with special needs would have to struggle through issues with which we’d normally help them. All the individual Education Plans (IEPs) would have to be rewritten to take this new normal into account.

Even lunch would be disrupted. After all, there would be fewer cafeteria workers so it would be harder just to cook a hot meal and make sure it gets onto a tray in time for students to eat it.

There’s no doubt about it.

My classroom would be very different if Mastriano wins the gubernatorial election in November.

The former US Army Colonel who participated in the January 6 insurrection proposes slashing education funding from $19,000 on average, per student, to $9,000.

According to an analysis by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the plan would mean a 33 percent overall cut in public school revenue, or a $12.75 billion loss. It would require approximately 118,704 layoffs – 49 percent of all employees in schools around the state.

At my district of Steel Valley in Munhall on the western side of the Commonwealth, the situation probably would be much like I described.

I can’t imagine how any teacher could adequately tend to double the students, but I might not have to imagine it.

I’d probably be laid off.

More than half of Steel Valley’s staff would be out of a job – 92 of our current 172 school nurses, counselors, aides, cafeteria workers and teachers would be looking for work.

And that’s just where I’m employed.

Things would be even worse for my daughter where she attends McKeesport Area School District.

According to PSEA estimates, the nearby McKeesport district would lose 281 of 521 staff – a 54% reduction. Classes would go from an average of 17 students to an average of 46. That’s an increase of 29 students per class!

How can she learn in that kind of environment!? She isn’t in college yet. She isn’t in some University of Pittsburgh survey class that meets in an auditorium. She’s in middle school!

But it would be pretty similar at public schools, charter schools, career and technical centers and intermediate units across the state.

From one side of the Commonwealth to the other, we’d go from 239,902 staff to 121,198. Class size would go from an average of 16 students per class to 33. That’s an increase of 17 students per class or 109%.

However, the PSEA estimate is actually a best case scenario for Mastriano’s proposal.

Like so many wannabe big time policymakers, he is very light on the details of how we would educate the state’s 1.7 million students. This whole proposal was just something he blurted out during a March 2022 WRTA radio interview.

It’s his plan to completely eliminate local school property taxes. Funding would be provided directly to parents via “Education Opportunity Accounts,” and families could then decide whether they want a public, private, charter or home school option.

To go from a statewide average funding level of $19,000 a student to $9,000 a student requires a cut of $17.6 billion, or 53%.

But if the remainder isn’t being paid by property taxes, that’s a roughly $15.3 billion a year expenditure by the state that used to be paid by local property taxes. Where is he getting that money from? And if the state can afford to pay that much, why not just pay the full $19,000 per student and make none of these unnecessary cuts? Or why not just pay half and reduce property taxes by that much? Mastriano is not exactly forthcoming on any of this.

PSEA admits that to come up with its own estimates of the damage the organization filled in a few details. The union assumes the state would fully fund the $9,000-per-student voucher and leave other local non-property taxes and federal revenues untouched.

That might not happen. We could be looking at an even more draconian situation.

The biggest question the PSEA is sidestepping is the impact of allowing taxpayer dollars to fund so many different types of schooling.

Even under Mastriano’s plan, nontraditional educational providers like charter schools would suffer because like traditional public schools they would be receiving less funding from the state than they do now. And parents using their vouchers to pay for private schools for their children would still have to make up a pretty big gap between the amount of the voucher and the cost of private school tuition.

However, since traditional public schools serve the overwhelming majority of the state’s students, they would take the biggest hit financially. If more parents use their voucher to pay for private, charter or home schools, that’s less funding for our public school system. That means even greater cuts to student services and more staff layoffs.

Moreover, what if parents use the voucher for a fly-by-night educational option that doesn’t meet it’s obligations?

For example, according to reports by the Network for Public Education, about half of all charter schools close in 15 years. And 27% close in five years.

And when it comes to charter schools that took federal funding, 12% never even opened. They just gobbled up the cash with nothing to show for it.

What will happen to students whose parents lose their vouchers in schools like these? Who will pay for these kids to be educated? Or will they have to go without?

And when it comes to private schools, does Mastriano mean only secular private schools or does he include parochial schools? Will your tax dollars be used to pay for students religious education?

And what about the curriculum at these private schools or some home school programs? Many use texts published by Bob Jones University Press, Accelerated Christian Education, or A Beka.

The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from White Europeans.

They teach that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, some dinosaurs survive into the present day (i.e. the Loch Ness monster), evolution is a myth disproved by REAL science and homosexuality is a choice.

Teaching these things in school is not just educational malpractice, it’s exactly the kind of indoctrination the right is claiming without evidence happens at public schools.

If someone wants to pay for such an education out of their own pocket, that’s one thing. But to ask taxpayers to fund such propaganda is something else entirely!

Thankfully, Pennsylvania voters don’t have to accept this. Not yet anyway.

There are still more than three months before the election. Voters can choose the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro. He has promised to INCREASE education funding and not just blow up the whole system.

To see an interactive map of how Mastriano’s education cuts would affect your school district, click here.

For now this is only a bad dream. We still have time to wake up and vote accordingly.

Students should not have to submerge themselves in a sea of classmates and hope the teacher will have time to educate them.

We should cut class size, not increase it.

We should hire more teachers, not rely on a skeleton crew.

We should invest in education, not sell off our future for a fast buck today.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

The Guardian vs. the Goon: PA’s Most Important Governor’s Race

The choice for Pennsylvania Governor could not be more clear in November.

On the one hand, we have Josh Shapiro – an Attorney General who fought for Commonwealth citizens’ rights for six years.

On the other, we have Doug Mastriano, a former US Army Colonel and 3-year state representative who supported a literal coup against the United States government.

In any sane world, that would be all you’d need to know.

Shapiro, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, vs. Mastriano, a traitor who actively worked to overturn the votes of the very citizens who elected him to office.

This should not be an election – it should be a rout.

However, Commonwealth voters will need to come to the polls and make it clear that they reject Mastriano’s fascism and that they instead support their own right to determine who governs in Pennsylvania and beyond.

That sounds extreme. I wish it weren’t also true.

Following the last Presidential election when it became clear Donald Trump had lost the vote, Republican Mastriano helped organize large rallies pushing false claims of election fraud. He chartered buses to take protesters to the Capitol on January 6. He personally crossed police barricades at the Capitol during the riot, and attempted to submit “alternate” (i.e. fake) pro-Trump electors to the official count. And he even coordinated all this with Trump when he was invited to the White House to discuss the “stop the steal” strategy.

If Mastriano somehow wins the governors race, he will be in a position to basically call off Democratic rule in the state. As governor, he would choose the secretary of state — the official in charge of administering the 2024 presidential election. This would effectively allow him to pick the winner, himself.

This is not just conjecture. Mastriano has gone on record that as governor he would decertify voting machines in some precincts – making it hard to count votes there. He has even alluded to the independent state legislature doctrine, which holds that state legislatures can name whoever they want as the recipient of a state’s electoral votes, regardless of who voters select.

This is not conservatism. It is not protecting American values or law and order. It is the opposite.

By contrast, Shapiro, the Democrat in the race, is a model of exactly those qualities usually associated with sobriety and efficiency.

As Attorney General, he fought federal government overreach including Trump’s travel ban. He filed a lawsuit to stop religious organizations denying health coverage including contraceptives to employees. He joined a lawsuit against for profit colleges resulting in a $168 million settlement. He reached an agreement with federal officials to prevent the distribution of blueprints for 3D printed firearms. He launched an investigation of allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church including a Grand Jury report alleging the sexual abuse of more than a thousand children at the hands of more than 300 priests.

In short, he worked hard to protect the people of this Commonwealth.

And the difference is stark on so many other issues when compared head-to-head.

Shapiro supports increasing public school funding. Mastriano wants to cut it in half.

Shapiro wants to increase security and gun regulations to prevent school shootings. Mastriano wants to give teachers guns and let them do the shooting.

Shapiro has fought to protect women’s reproductive rights against the state. Mastriano supports the state telling people what to do with their own bodies.

And on top of all that – Mastriano has ties to White Supremacists!

Until recently, his campaign paid consulting fees to Gab, a white nationalist social media site owned by anti-Semite Andrew Torba. Gab was the site that helped inspire the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue mass murder in 2018. Torba and others on the site that Mastriano was explicitly looking to for support commonly champion Great Replacement theory and support Vladimir Putin.

No skeletons of this type have been found in Shapiro’s closet.

The worst anyone has found so far is a $100,000 donation from Students First PA, a charter school advocacy group, which he took money from when he was running for Attorney General in 2016. However, Shapiro made no effort to hide the donation and his voting record when he was a state representative was not pro-charter. In 2011, for example, he voted against a measure to provide tuition vouchers of charter schools, and he has been a vocal critic of the industry for years. Moreover, neither Students First PA nor any other pro-education privatization organization that I can find has made any significant donations to him this election cycle so far.

The way I see it, this is a simple – if terrifying – election.

Shapiro is not perfect, but if elected, he would function similarly to current Governor Tom Wolf. He would be a guardian against the overreach and bad decisions of the gerrymandered Republican legislature.

One can hope voters throughout the Commonwealth would take back their individual voting districts from the extremists, but given the still uncompetitive lines of these districts, this seems unlikely.

So we need a Wolf, we need a Shapiro, standing on the battlements stopping the goons like Mastriano from taking advantage of the majority of us.

Shapiro would certainly do that. He might even go farther and fight to find ways to get real change through the legislature. But even if he can’t do that, voting for him is essential.

Mastriano may simply be the worst candidate for governor in the Commonwealth’s history – and that’s saying something!

We need Shapiro. We need Austin Davis as Lt. Governor. And we need John Fetterman as Senator.

That would make a huge difference both nationally and throughout the state.

It would set us up with a firm foundation and at least keep people safe from the worst.

I know it is depressing to be put in this situation constantly. Every election cycle seems to be the most important because the country is falling apart. Maybe we can find a way to turn things back and reach some level of sanity. But we can’t do anything unless we elect Shapiro, Davis and Fetterman.

We need the guardians against the goons.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

Why is a Gates-Funded, Anti-Union, Charter Advocacy Group Part of Pennsylvania’s New Plan to Stop the Teacher Exodus?

Teachers are fleeing the profession in droves.

So Pennsylvania has unveiled a new plan to stop the exodus with the help of an organization pushing the same policies that made teaching undesirable in the first place.

The state’s Department of Education (PDE) announced its plan to stop the state’s teacher exodus today.

One of the four people introducing the plan at the Harrisburg press conference was Laura Boyce, Pennsylvania executive director of Teach Plus.

Why is this surprising?

Teach Plus is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to select and train teachers to push its political agenda.

What is that agenda?

Teach Plus has embraced the practice of widespread staff firings as a strategy for school improvement.

Teach Plus mandates that test scores be a significant part of teacher evaluation.

Teach Plus advocates against seniority and claims that unions stifle innovation.

Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and substantial donations from the Walton Family Foundation.

How can an organization dedicated to the same ideas that prompted the exodus turn around and stop the evacuation!?

That’s like hiring a pyromaniac as a fire fighter!

“Pennsylvania’s educator shortage is the biggest threat facing not only our educational system but our future prosperity as a commonwealth,” Boyce said at the press conference.

“If schools are engines of educational and economic opportunity, then educators are the conductors who keep the train moving forward. Teach Plus teachers have been sounding the alarm about this crisis and are eager to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes to better recruit and retain educators in Pennsylvania.”

However, she’s already getting things wrong.

The importance of education is NOT as the “engine of economic opportunity.” Its importance is to help students become their best selves. It is creating critical thinkers who can navigate our modern world, become well-informed participants in our democratic system and live good lives.

Given the track record of Teach Plus, any well-informed individual should be wary of the how “eager [the organization is] to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes.”

But what’s actually in the plan?

A lot of vague generalizations.

The plan (titled The Foundation of Our Economy: Pennsylvania Educator Workforce Strategy, 2022-2025) sets forth five focus areas:

1) Meeting the educator staffing needs of rural, suburban, and urban areas;

2) Building a diverse workforce representative of the students we serve;

3) Operating a rigorous, streamlined, and customer service-oriented certification process;

4) Ensuring high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators; and

5) Ensuring educator access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities.

As you can see, it is full of corporate education reform buzzwords like ‘rigorous” and “high quality” that neoliberals have used as code for their policies for decades.

There are 50 steps outlined in the report. While many seem important and well-intentioned, they lack any kind of urgency, and though organized under these five areas, still seem kind of scattershot.

For example, the number one most important thing any state has to do to retain current teachers and to attract new teachers is to increase wages.

Teachers make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

More than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

Yet increasing teacher salary is only briefly mentioned in step 13 of the first focus group as follows:

“13. Based on the resources that PDE develops on competitive compensation and incentives, advocate for and secure funding from the General Assembly that enables hiring entities to compete more effectively in the regional labor market.”

Talk about anemic language!

Imagine being on a sinking ship and someone only mentioning plugging the leak in such terms – if we can, based on our resources, yada, yada, yada.

Another point that jumped out to me was recruitment of new teachers.

Under focus two, the plan calls for:

“6. Partner with nonprofit organizations working to develop recruitment, training, and mentoring programs for middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds to identify and recruit future educators.”

Getting more people to become teachers sounds great, but why are we partnering with “nonprofit organizations” and which ones in particular do you have in mind?

There are plenty of neoliberal organizations of a similar type to Teach Plus that call themselves “nonprofit” – for example Teach for America.

Are we advocating for teacher temps with a few weeks crash course in education? It sure sounds like it to me.

Moreover, there’s the issue of charter schools. These are schools funded by tax dollars but often run by corporations or other organizations. Many of these consider themselves nonprofit.

So doesn’t this new plan help push more educators into the charter school network? Isn’t it open to funding more charter schools and calling it teacher retention?

Considering that charter schools are not subject to the same regulations as authentic public schools and allow all kinds of fiscal and student abuses, I’m not sure how encouraging such practices will help anyone but the profiteers behind these schools.

Then there’s the emphasis on building a diverse workforce.

In itself, that’s an excellent and necessary goal. However, if you aren’t going to make the profession more attractive, you aren’t going to increase diversity. Right now one of the major reasons our schools are full of mostly white, middle class teachers is because white, middle class people are the only ones who can afford to take the job.

Teaching often requires economic white privilege and often a second member of the household to earn the lion’s share of the income. Without addressing the pure dollars and cents of this issue – something Teach Plus is overjoyed to do when talking about the importance of education – all this talk of diversity is mere tokenism. It’s hiding behind a veneer of “wokeness” with no real intention of doing anything to help people of color as teachers or students.

Finally, let’s talk about the kinds of teacher preparation, professional development and leadership opportunities in this plan.

They are described as:

“high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators” and

“access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities”

But “high quality” by whose definition?

That’s the point here. Classroom teachers would consider classroom management, effective discipline and time for effective planning to be “high quality.” Educators would value more autonomy and less paperwork. But I’m willing to bet that isn’t what the authors of this plan think it means.

This is what Teach Plus does. It advocates for neoliberal disruptions in school management.

In the past, Teach Plus has insisted older more experienced educators be fired while shielding “promising young teachers” from the brunt of these firings. There is a great deal of evidence that teacher effectiveness, on a wide range of indicators – not just test scores – increases as teachers gain experience. However, new teachers are easier to brainwash into corporate education reform – to be driven by standardized test scores and data instead of the needs of the living, human beings in front of them in the classroom.

So this proposed teacher preparation and professional development is of what kind exactly? I’ll bet it’s mostly reeducation to accept corporate education reform. I’ll bet it’s focused on ways to increase student test scores which will then be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness – a program that has been roundly disproven for decades.

So where does that leave us?

A decades ago roughly 20,000 new teachers entered the workforce each year, while last year only 6,000 did so, according to PDE.

The minimum teacher salary in the Commonwealth stands at $18,500 — and has since 1989.

Meanwhile lawmakers – especially Republicans – push for bills to monitor teachers, restrict them from teaching an accurate history, and ban books from their libraries and curriculums.

Standardized tests are everywhere the main metric of success or failure, and school funding is determined by them. While authentic public schools serving the poor and middle class starve for funding, the legislature gives an increasing share of our tax dollars to charter and voucher schools without oversight on how that money is spent.

This new plan is not going to change any of that.

It is at best a Band-Aid – at worst a public relations stunt.

If we really wanted to stop the teacher exodus, we wouldn’t partner with one of the architects of the current crisis to do so.

We would roll up our sleeves and take the actions necessary for real change – and chief among these would be an increase in teacher salary, autonomy and prestige.


 

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Dr. Tia Wanzo is the First Black Superintendent at McKeesport Area School District

It only took 138 years, but McKeesport Area School District finally has a Black Superintendent.

Dr. Tia Wanzo was sworn in yesterday at a well attended special meeting of the board.

Dr. Wanzo had been Assistant Superintendent under outgoing Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman who left the district for a corresponding position at Beaver Area School District at the end of June.

The McKeesport district, established in 1884 and located just southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has had a sizable Black population for decades. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, the district is 71 percent white and 23 percent Black. It serves the City of McKeesport, and boroughs of Versailles, Dravosburg and White Oak as well as a small portion of South Versailles Township.

“It’s an honor to sit on the board at this time as history was made,” Board Member LaToya Wright Brown wrote on a Facebook post.

“Dr. Wanzo is the first African American to be appointed in the role of superintendent at MASD. I look forward to working in collaboration with our central administration teams, MASD staff and communities to give our students what they deserve.”

Dr. Wanzo will be paid $165,000 per year – $25,000 more than Dr. Holtzman had been paid in his original contract from March 29, 2017.

The board voted unanimously to hire Dr. Wanzo as Superintendent though School Director Matt Holtzman – the former Superintendent’s brother – was absent.

During the previous administration, Dr. Wanzo was often put in difficult positions.

In 2019 when the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district on behalf of 11 district students, she had the difficult job of defending her boss, Dr. Holtzman, while still advocating for the students.

Dr. Holtzman, who was named in the suit, refused to let the students create a Black Student Union. He claimed his objection wasn’t due to the organization’s content but the participation of one of the student’s mothers – Fawn Montgomery Walker who was running for McKeesport Mayor at the time and who is lead organizer of Take Action Mon Valley, a community action group.

Dr. Wanzo was quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on the matter as follows:

“The frustrating part is the students clearly did not understand that they’re in the middle of this. And also, it’s frustrating that they feel that we are telling them they cannot do that, you’re not allowed to have this club, because that was never ever stated by any of us.”

The district eventually reached a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and the students.

The students were allowed to create the club as long as no “non-school persons or entities” are named as advisors or participants of the club.

Dr. Wanzo was also put in a difficult position more recently when the previous school board voted to extend Dr. Holtzman’s contract two years before it expired – a potential violation of state law.

Dr. Holtzman resigned and was rehired at the same board meeting. When this proved contentious, the previous board did the same thing a month later for Dr. Wanzo and then claimed any criticism of what they did for Holtzman was either unfair for not including Wanzo or racially motivated because Dr. Wanzo is a person of color.

The matter concluded with Dr. Holtzman leaving the district.

Unlike her predecessor, Dr. Wanzo spent her entire career at MASD. She was a fifth grade teacher at Francis McClure Middle School, a second grade teacher at White Oak Elementary School, a fourth grade teacher at Cornell Intermediate School, Assistant Principal at Founders’ Hall Middle School, and ninth grade principal at the high school.

She graduated from the district and still lives in its borders. As a student, she attended Centennial Elementary, Cornell Middle School, and graduated from McKeesport High School in 1997. 

She has a BA in Elementary Education from Clarion University, a degree in Educational Leadership from Carlow University, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Duquesne University.

Hopefully she will be able to lead the district to a brighter future.

To many students she may appear a beacon of representation as well as proof that a student from McKeesport can rise to the top.

WATCH DR. WANZO BEING SWORN IN:


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Doug Mastriano’s Rootin’ Tootin’ School Shootin’ Prevention Plan in PA

A teenage boy in a black trench coat walks down a school hallway.

A young girl abruptly turns a corner and is about to walk past when she stops and notices an oblong shape in his coat.

He pulls out an AR-15 and points it at her head.

She gasps. He smiles.

“Hold it right there, Patrick.” Says a voice behind him.

“Mr. Callahan?” The boy says starting to bring the barrel around.

‘Uh-uh. Stop right there,” says the voice shoving something in the boy’s back.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the teacher continues. “My homeroom teacher, Mr. Callahan, has a gun in his desk. Did he remember to bring it with him to hall duty? Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being it’s a 500 S&W Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”

Apparently this is how Doug Mastriano thinks school shootings can best be prevented.

The Pennsylvania State Senator and Republican candidate for governor plans to introduce a bill allowing school employees to arm themselves while on school property if they have a concealed carry permit and pass a firearms course.

Not gun control. Not stopping teens from buying assault weapons. Not keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Instead, arm the teachers. Arm the principals. Put a piece in the hands of Lunch Lady Doris. Maybe even the custodians will be packing heat with a bucket and mop.

This is not the kind of serious proposal Commonwealth residents deserve from a representative of the legislature or executive branch. It’s not the kind of serious proposal you’d expect from a grown adult. Heck. It’s not what you’d expect from a small child still unable to tie his own shoes.

School shootings are not action movie scenarios. They’re not run-and-gun video games. They’re not cops and robbers. They’re real life.

They’re the cause of elementary kids being decapitated by assault weapons fire.

They’re the cause of fifth grade bodies so unrecognizable they have to be identified by their green Converse sneakers.

They’re the cause of child sized coffins adorned with cartoon doggies and kitties – brightly colored friends to accompany little kids to their final resting places.

Mastriano’s suggestion would be pathetic if it weren’t so dangerous.

He thinks school shooters are attracted to places where they know people aren’t armed.

However, history proves him wrong.

The overwhelming majority of school shootings either involved armed police stationed at the school or police responding quickly thereafter.

Lest we forget, there were police officers on both the campuses of Robb Elementary School in Texas and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where shootings cumulatively took the lives of more than 30 students.

According to a 2021 JAMA Network study that looked at 133 school shootings from 1980 to 2019, armed guards did not significantly reduce injuries or deaths during school mass shootings.

In fact, when researchers controlled for location and school characteristic factors, “the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”

Put simply, school shootings are not rational activities subject to cost benefit analysis from the people contemplating doing them. Would-be shooters do not expect to come out alive. They don’t care if there is armed resistance or not. In fact, the presence of armed resistance only encourages them to bring deadlier weaponry – especially semi-automatic guns.

That’s why police in Uvalde, Texas, were too scared to go into Robb Elementary School and stop the perpetrator armed with an AR-15 – perhaps the most common weapon used in school shootings.

And when trained police are afraid, Mastriano expects better from school staff – teachers, secretaries, aides, and nurses!!!?

A similar proposal permitting the arming of school employees passed the state Senate in June 2017 but it died in a House committee. In the district where I work as a middle school teacher, we talked about the issue at a staff meeting.

The few people who thought it was a good idea and said they would gladly bring a gun with them to school are nice people – but they’re the last ones you’d want armed.

Moreover, we have a school resource officer who said he was not in favor of the measure because it would make things tougher for law enforcement responding to a shooting. It would make it that much more unclear who the shooter was and increase the chances of friendly fire.

It’s hardly surprising Mastriano is making such boneheaded proposals.

If elected governor, he also promises to cut public school funding IN HALF and make it harder for educators to collectively bargain for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions.

He is an extremist who wants to destroy public education in favor or charter and voucher schools, take away people’s freedom to choose what to do with their own bodies, discriminate against anyone with a different sexuality or religious belief and give away as much tax money as possible to private businesses.

Mastriano is either a fool who does not understand the issues or a patsy of the lunatic fringe of his party or both.

He wouldn’t arm teachers with books, funding or resources to teach – just guns.

He is an embarrassment to the people of Franklin County who elected him to the legislature and the Republican base who chose him to represent them in the governor’s race.

I know it’s trendy for the GOP to pick the candidate most likely to piss off the people across the aisle, but this isn’t a game.

Fools like Mastriano are going to get innocent people and their children killed – not to mention the suffering thousands will have to endure if his policies ever see the light of day.

He thinks the answer to school shootings is to turn the school librarian into Yosemite Sam.

If you vote for him in the general election, you will reap what you sow – misery and death.


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Hope Grows as Argument Ends in PA School Funding Lawsuit 

Is it safe to hope?

That’s what I’m wondering as closing arguments are set to begin tomorrow in the historic Pennsylvania school funding lawsuit.

In my home state, public schools have had to band together and sue the legislature for adequate funding.

Though a final decision may not come until summer or fall, it actually seems possible that things could change for the better. 

I feel cautiously optimistic that Commonwealth Court will decide in favor of the state’s schools and not the legislature. 

But frankly I am also disgusted that it has even come to this.

The schools had to take our own government to court to force lawmakers to pay for kids to get an adequate education.

Can you imagine the kind of person who refuses to care about children?

As a public school teacher and father, I just can’t.

Pennsylvania is one of seven states with a Constitution that specifically requires the state to provide a sufficient education. Some of these other states – like New Jersey – have used similar Constitutional requirements to force their legislatures to increase state funding to public schools.

Specifically, our state Constitution says:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” 

“Thorough and efficient.”

Not lavish. Not extravagant. Just complete and productive.

Yet for nearly 8 years getting to court and for three months, 13 weeks, 48 days in court, the state has argued that it already does that.

It’s one of the most absurd assertions I have ever heard. They might as well argue that water is not wet and fire is not hot.

Walk into any wealthy school in the Commonwealth and look around. You’ll see the equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Now walk into any poor district and look around. You’ll see the equivalent of a slum.

One has brand new facilities, marble columns, and wood paneling scrubbed to a shine with a bustling staff moving to-and-fro. 

The other has badly maintained structures, exposed insulation, dusty corners, leaky ceilings and animal droppings while a skeleton crew of adults try their all to do the impossible without the tools to get it done. 

The Pennsylvania legislature has been paying less and less of public schools’ budgets over the last four decades. The state used to contribute 54% of all public school costs in the early 1970s. Today it pays just 38% of the cost. Only five states cover a smaller share with the national average at 47%. This leaves local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.

During the trial, the state had tried to argue that money doesn’t matter. Yet poor schools can spend $4,800 less per student than wealthy districts. What’s worse, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Yet we provide them with fewer resources!?

According to a benchmark written into state law, public schools need $4.6 billion in additional funding just to give students a shot. And 277 districts – whether they be in cities, small towns or suburbs – need $2,000 in additional funding per student to get up to snuff.

This affects the great majority of our children – 86% of students attend schools that don’t receive adequate resources.

But it’s even worse for children of color. Half of the state’s Black students and 40% of the state’s Latino students go to schools in the bottom 20% for local wealth.

John Krill, a lawyer for the state, sees no problem with this disparity. In fact, he argued in favor of it.

In perhaps the most revealing moment of the trial, Krill, who represents GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, asked:

 
“What use would a carpenter have for biology? […] What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1? […] The question in my mind is, thorough and efficient to what end? To serve the needs of the Commonwealth. Lest we forget, the Commonwealth has many needs. There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.” 

So the Commonwealth actually argued that inequitable funding is okay because all kids don’t need a thorough education. Some just need the bare minimum to do whatever menial jobs they’re destined to have while the elite kids need more for the high skilled jobs they’re going to get.

I wonder which kids Krill and his defendants in the legislature think deserve less funding. I’ll bet it’s the black and brown kids already suffering most from this disparity.

Luckily, the school districts asking the courts to intervene feel differently.

Six school districts – William Penn, Lancaster, Panther Valley, Greater Johnstown, Shenandoah Valley, and Wilkes Barre Area – filed the suit along with the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP PA State Conference, and families whose children attend under-resourced schools.

Essentially, they are asking for two things.

First, for the court to declare the current funding system unconstitutional.

Second, for the court to order the legislature to create and maintain a fair funding system.

You might say, wait. Didn’t the legislature adopt a new Basic Education Funding formula in 2016 that already provides a fairer way to allocate money based on need?

And the answer is – yes, it did, BUT this funding formula is hardly ever used. Lawmakers only apply it to distribute new money, and increases have been few and far between. So the lion’s share of education funding is still inequitably distributed. We need to change that, to make sure everyone is getting their fair share AND that the money is adequate for the task.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2022-23 budget proposal has already begun to address this.

He suggests a $1.75 billion down payment to schools on the $4.6 billion gap.

The state has the money to do this. It just needs to cut wasteful spending elsewhere and close tax loopholes.

For example, the state throws away $240 million a year to The Race Horse Development Fund. These are taxpayer funded subsidies to wealthy horse racing enthusiasts and hobbyists. Since 2004, the legislature has lavished $3 billion on the horse racing industry. Shouldn’t we prioritize school children over cash prizes and inflated pensions for wealthy horse owners, breeders, and trainers? Aren’t kids more important than paying to drug test horses and for racetrack marketing?

It’s these kind of shenanigans that forced 57% of school districts to increase taxes this year.

If the state was doing its job and looking after kids instead of giving handouts to wealthy oligarchs, you and I wouldn’t feel as much pain in our wallets.

Moreover, local school districts will pay $2.8 billion in charter school tuition this year. Why does the state keep opening these expensive privatized institutions that have less fiscal accountability than our authentic public schools? Again the ideology of far right lawmakers is funded by you and me with our tax dollars.

So what’s next after closing arguments this week?

Both parties in the case will file a series of post-trial briefs saying what they believe they proved during the testimony, the “conclusions of law” they are asking the judge to reach, and their analysis of the legal questions presented—such as the meaning of the state Constitution’s “thorough and efficient” education clause.

The final post-trial brief is due on July 6. Then — after oral argument on legal issues at a later date — the court will make its final decision weeks or months later.

In the meantime, the budget is supposed to have been approved by the legislature (one way or another) and signed by the Governor by June 30. If not, funding for some state programs may be delayed. But you never know. The legislature has been late on this before.

So what am I learning from all of this?

The value of hope?

The evil of lawmakers who want to continue shortchanging our children?

The bravery of public school districts that challenge the state to follow its own darn rules?

All of the above.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

McKeesport School Directors Investigating Validity of Superintendent’s Contract

A majority of McKeesport School Directors is questioning whether the previous board broke the law in giving the Superintendent a new contract.

In July of 2021, the previous board both accepted Dr. Mark Holtzman’s resignation as Superintendent and then immediately rehired him with a new 5-year contract.

Pennsylvania law does not allow such contracts to be extended with more than a year left before they expire. Holtzman still had two years left on his contract.

Moreover, three of five school directors who voted to extend Holtzman’s hire were lame ducks. They were stepping down from the board. Voting on this matter early robbed new board members of the chance.

So a month after new board members were sworn in, the board voted 5-4 in January to look into whether Holtzman’s resignation and subsequent rehire are enforceable.

His term at the district located just south of Pittsburgh had been set to expire in 2023 and will now continue until 2026.

In response to the board’s request, school directors received a letter in February from lawyer William C. Andrews stating that the measure could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the school code.

School director Mindy Lundberg read from Andrews letter at the board’s Wednesday meeting:

“…this resignation would arguably not be valid and the acceptance of it could be viewed as an attempt to confer a benefit upon an employee in contravention of the legislature’s intent. Here that benefit is a contract extension beyond the statutory limit.”

Dr. Holtzman responded with a letter from his own legal council, Mark E. Scott.

“We are confident that we will prevail in this issue if ever litigated,” Holtzman read from Scott’s letter. The practice of Superintendents resigning and being immediately rehired is common at other local districts, he said.

However, even if the district proved the new contract was void, Holtzman would return to the previous contract, and the district would be liable for all the Superintendent’s legal fees regardless of the outcome in court, Scott wrote.

For his part, Holtzman says he wants to remain as McKeesport’s Superintendent but is willing to negotiate a way out of his contract with the district if the board wishes to pursue that.

He said:

“I will clearly state if they want me to move on, and I’ve said it to them in private, I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight. This witch hunt and issue is over, overdone, overstated and we need to move on and once I’m compensated for my attorney fees.”

However, board members were not about to let the matter drop at that.

Both Lundberg and fellow school director James Brown (both of whom were on the board when Holtzman resigned and was rehired) said that they had not been given a copy of his new contract or his letter of resignation before being asked to vote on the matter. That may explain why they did not vote in favor of it.

Lundberg had questions for Joseph Lopretto who had been board President at the 2021 meeting and voted in favor of the new contract.

“Mr. Lopretto, just for the record since you were president… was there a contract presented to the board in the back room to know what we were voting on?” Lundberg asked.

“A Contract was presented. Yes,” Lopretto said.

“No, it was not. It was an outdated contract,” Lundberg responded.

Brown became extremely agitated and stated three times, “There was not a contract presented that night!”

“Nor did we receive a resignation letter,” Lundberg added.

“We never received a resignation letter. I still have not seen a resignation letter,” Brown said.

It is unclear where the board will go from here.

Will school directors seek legal action?

Will they ask Holtzman to resign – for REAL this time?

Will they all be able to move forward together?

Holtzman said the reason the previous board had given him a new contract in the way they did was because he was interviewing at a neighboring district and was eventually offered a Superintendent’s position there.

To keep him at McKeesport, the board needed to offer him more job security and compensation. However, since he still had two years on his current contract, the school code forbade them from just extending it. He needed to resign and then be given a new 5-year contract. Once this was done, he turned down the job at the other district.

According to Holtzman, Scott postulates that the argument against the new contract relies on Holtzman’s resignation being a “sham.” In effect, he didn’t really resign so the new contract was actually a contract extension – which would be illegal this early.

“Obviously we believe that it is not a sham and Dr. Holtzman was fully prepared to move on to the new district,” Scott wrote.

“Clearly the district cannot claim that the resignation was a sham for the purposes of rescinding his current contract but it’s not a sham for the purposes of terminating his employment with the district effectively July 5, 2021.”

In other words, if Holtzman didn’t really resign, then he’s still under the terms of his previous contract.

Scott also took issue with the fact that protests are being made about what the previous board did for Holtzman but not about what that same board did to extend the contract of another district administrator – Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo. She, too, resigned her position and was immediately rehired with a new contract.

However, this was done at another meeting AFTER Dr. Holtzman got a new contract. Cynics might even say it was done for the express purpose of demonstrating that Dr. Holtzman’s resignation and rehire weren’t a solitary case.

At a meeting in September, 2021, Dr. Holtzman even insinuated that objections toward both his and Wanzo’s rehires were racist because Wanzo is African American.

It will be interesting to see what the board does to resolve the issue.

VIDEO OF THE MASD REGULAR MEETING:


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!