The state secretary of education is advising parents to withdraw their children from a Beaver County charter school and is urging the sponsoring school district to begin proceedings to close it.
In letters dated Jan. 4, Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak said the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland is not operating within the state's charter school law and parents should begin sending their children to other schools.
Zahorchak urged the Midland Borough School District to begin proceedings to revoke Lincoln Park's charter.
"... I am deeply concerned that the controls and oversight necessary to ensure that our children benefit, our taxpayers are protected, and our parents are informed, are not in place," Zahorchak wrote…
The Lincoln Park charter school is part of an educational conglomerate that grew out of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, established six years ago in Midland.
A grand jury sitting in Pittsburgh is investigating allegations of double billing, excessive management fees, questionable payments to building contractors and misuse of tax dollars at the cyber school. The grand jury has been investigating since October.
The Lincoln Park charter school, located in the $23.5 million Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, opened in September but billed school districts for students attending in the 2005-06 school year, the education department alleges. The charter school has about 300 students and 200 employees.
The Department of Education alleges that Lincoln Park "is not providing enrolled students with an academic curriculum at Lincoln Park."
Some students enrolled at the school are taking performing arts courses there but are being sent to schools in either Midland schools or the Western Beaver School District for their academic courses, Zahorchak said.
Other students enrolled at Lincoln Park are not taking any courses at the school and are being sent to Midland or Western Beaver schools for their entire education, the letter said…
The state Department of Education has not blocked funding for a Beaver County charter school, and the school remains open pending an investigation, a spokeswoman said Friday afternoon.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in its editions yesterday that the department had taken action to block funding for Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland by revoking a nine-digit identification number needed to receive state money.
"Since our responsibility is to the students in Pennsylvania, we will do everything in our power to prevent children's education from being disrupted during the school year," education department spokeswoman Sheila Ballen wrote in an e-mail message that challenged the Trib's story.
"Until PDE's investigation into Lincoln Park Charter School is complete, we are advising school districts who have students enrolled in the school to consider contingency plans for their students in the event they need to be moved from Lincoln Park, but not act upon those plans until they hear from PDE. At the same time, PDE has not blocked funding," she wrote…
In the past seven years, Nicholas Trombetta has climbed from small-town Beaver County school administrator to the head of a sprawling educational network fueled by millions of taxpayer dollars.
Now this onetime wrestling coach finds himself grappling with a ring of powerful opponents -- from law enforcement agencies to the state Legislature to litigators -- who are imperiling the empire he built from scratch.
Detractors claim Dr. Trombetta has misused the public's money and engaged in a range of questionable business practices at his booming Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and affiliated entities. Those include the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, a $23.5 million jewel that sits across from Dr. Trombetta's office on the main drag of Midland, population 3,000.
Although it is not clear exactly what state Attorney General Tom Corbett Jr. is investigating, a statewide grand jury whose term recently ended heard testimony over several months about alleged financial shenanigans within Dr. Trombetta's network. Prosecutors are expected to continue presenting evidence to a new grand jury next month…
Dr. Trombetta is chief executive officer of the charter school, a 21st-century economic engine for tiny Midland which foundered after Crucible Steel shut down in the 1980s.
The school, along with the performing arts center, the affiliated Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, and the Beaver-based National Network of Digital Schools, a management group of which Dr. Trombetta is president, have created nearly 800 jobs…
Dr. Trombetta is also superintendent of the Midland School District, which approved the charter for the cyber school…
"Just the way he's set things up, he's like an old ward leader who basically controls his turf, and anybody who's on a board out there either works for Nick or has someone in his family who works for Nick, so the chance that he would have any dissent is nil because everybody works for Nick or entities that he controls," claims Mark Zabierek, a lobbyist and longtime political player in Western Pennsylvania who worked for a firm, Centre Educational Consultants, that was fired by Mr. Trombetta. Mr. Zabierek has testified before the grand jury…
Dr. Trombetta's success stems from the hard times his town fell on two decades ago. Midland closed its high school in 1986, and with no other Beaver County school district willing to take its students, the borough eventually sent them across the border to East Liverpool, Ohio. That did not sit well with Dr. Trombetta, an Aliquippa native and resident of East Liverpool. He wanted Midland children to stay local.
By 2000, Dr. Trombetta had found the answer: Launch a cyber charter school that could attract both Midlanders and students from around the state.
Starting with 527 students in 2000-2001 and revenue of $2.9 million, the school has grown exponentially…
But critics question the use of the cyber school's income. Exhibit A in their opinion is the performing arts center. It was built with $7.5 million in state funds, $3 million from Beaver County, and $3 million from the Midland School District. Filling out the funding: a $10 million, 20-year pre-paid lease by the cyber charter school.
"The school has funneled millions of dollars into the construction of Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center ... without proper documentation, purpose or, at times, authority for such payments," Michael Barney, a former business associate, charged in a 2005 letter to Dr. Trombetta…
The Pennsylvania Department of Education issued the following news release:
Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak announced today that a settlement agreement has been signed with the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School following the department's investigation into the school's operations.
"This signed agreement satisfies the department's concerns and allows the school to continue enrolling students," Zahorchak said. "Charter schools can provide solid learning opportunities for our children, so long as they operate with the proper oversight and in accordance with laws that are meant to ensure their educational integrity."
The secretary said he will send letters informing surrounding districts that they should start making per pupil payments to Lincoln Park Charter School for their students who are enrolled there. Those letters should be mailed within the next week.
The department's investigation was prompted by concerns that the Lincoln Park charter school was operating in violation of the 1997 law that allows for the operation of charter schools in the commonwealth. The department's concerns included questions ranging from the charter school's billing practices to its curriculum offerings.
Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School was granted its charter by Midland Borough School District in February 2005 and began enrolling students in the 2005-06 school year, even though the charter school was not properly incorporated until June 2006.
Through its investigation, the department found that a portion of Lincoln Park's operations during the 2006-07 school year were improper because some students enrolled there actually received some or all of their instruction from teachers in the Midland Borough School District. In addition, some students enrolled at Lincoln Park from the Midland Borough School District actually received instruction at a high school in the Western Beaver County School District.
The secretary said the agreement adequately resolves concerns about the charter school's operations. Under the settlement, Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School agrees to:
· No longer send its students to the Western Beaver and Midland Borough school districts for their education.· Return per-pupil payments made by Beaver Area, South Side Area and West Allegheny for the 2005-06 school year.· Not make any attempt to collect funds from six western Pennsylvania school districts (Aliquippa, Beaver Area, Big Beaver Falls, Rochester, West Allegheny and Western Beaver) that had resident students enrolled in the charter school and educated at Midland in the 2006-07 school year. In addition, Midland Borough School District will not receive reimbursement from the commonwealth for Midland resident students who were enrolled at the Lincoln Park charter school in the 2005-06 school year.Also as part of the settlement, the Beaver Area, South Side and West Allegheny school districts will not receive any reimbursement from the commonwealth for resident students who were enrolled in the Lincoln Park charter school during the 2005-06 school year because the charter school will be returning per-pupil payments made by those districts for that school year.