Bear Creek Community Charter School one of few in state to respond to info request.

BEAR CREEK TWP. — Bear Creek Community Charter School is one of only 12 statewide to respond so far to a May 15 information request sent to some 180 charters by an advocacy group. And while Bear Creek CEO Jim Smith thinks the request is “a fishing expedition,” he leveled harsh criticism to other charters.

“Shame on the other charter schools that didn’t respond,” Smith said of the request that included a query about his salary of $110,000. “No one should think they are above the law.” Smith gave the Times Leader copies of the request he received from PSBA and his school’s response.

On May 15, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which lobbies on behalf of public district school boards statewide, sent a lengthy Right to Know request to 180 charter schools across the state. Charter schools are public schools that operate with fewer state restrictions than school districts, but are still subject to the state’s open records law.

Brick-and-mortar charters are granted by the district in which the school operates; cyber charter schools operating online are chartered by the state. Bear Creek is chartered through Wilkes-Barre Area School District.

In a media release announcing the requests, PSBA argued “as public school entities, charters are funded by public dollars and taxpayers have every right to know how their money is being spent. The ultimate goal of the request is to ensure transparency in charter school spending. Last year, nearly $1.3 billion passed through traditional public schools to charters and cyber charter schools.”

Motives questioned

Charter school advocacy groups were quick to question the motives. The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools called it a “publicity stunt” and, in a note posted on its website, said it “has no problem with either transparency or full responsiveness to legitimate RTK requests, but when the law is being used to harass, rather than inform, then the requests should be denied.”

The PSBA responded by questioning why the coalition would “encourage its members to deliberately violate state law.”

Smith agreed — both with the coalition’s concern about PSBA motives, and the PSBA’s position that denying the request would violate state law.

“Anybody can put any kind of spin they want on the data they asked for,” Smith said. “I don’t know what their intentions are, but I’m sure it’s not positive for charter schools.”

PSBA made six specific requests:

• Number of Advanced Placement and similar college-level courses offered;

• Salary and benefits of administrators, including those working as consultants or contractors;

• Information on any foundation established to provide financial aid to the school;

• Records regarding money obtained through the state’s education tax credit programs;

• Records of any real estate purchases or leases in the last five years; and

• Records regarding any advertising spending.

Bear Creek response

Here is some of the information Smith gave PSBA in response to their request:

• Bear Creek is chartered to offer kindergarten through eighth grade and so has no AP or other college preparatory classes.

• The non-profit Bear Creek Foundation was incorporated to “own and maintain real estate in support of” the school, raise money for the school and implement a scholarship program.

• From May 1, 2013 through April 2015, the foundation gave the school seven donations totaling $11,071, ranging from $9.99 for “environmental magazine” to two $4,000 donations for “environment education” funded through the state’s Education Improvement Tax Credit program, which gives businesses tax credits for donations to such foundations.

• Along with Smith’s own salary as CEO, there were four other administrators listed: Principal Brian Dugas, $92,205; Assistant Principal Kristen Young, $69,993; Special Education Coordinator Bridget Deeble, $55,168; and School Accountant Tamara Miller, $70,176.

• Other than legal notices for public meetings and job openings, the school’s only advertising expenditure was “an annual notice of open enrollment.” The documents Smith provided include a receipt for $442.50 for the ad.

• The documents include three agreements between the school and the foundation: Two building lease agreements, one dated April 21, 2008 and the other dated Jan. 1,2012, and a “development agreement” dated Dec. 6, 2012.

The 2008 lease is for the school itself, which started in the building that previously housed Wilkes-Barre Area School District’s Bear Creek Elementary School. The charter school was created in response to the district’s decision to close that school.

The 2012 lease is for nearby property purchased by the foundation that the school uses for office space and support activities. The development agreement is for construction of a new school at a separate location, now well underway.