Board votes against charter school’s renewal

MILL HALL — More than 100 people — most clad in the green and white of Sugar Valley — packed the Central Mountain High School auditorium to learn the fate of the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School Wednesday night.

In the end, the Keystone Central school board voted not to renew the charter with Sugar Valley by a 7-1 vote. Voting against renewing the charter were: board president Boise “Bo” Miller, board vice-president Roger Elling along with board members Elisabeth Lynch, Eric Probert, Charlie Rosamilia, Wayne Koch and Tracy Smith. Polly Donahay was the lone yes vote, while Deborah Smith had to leave the meeting due to illness.

The renewal would have been for a period of five years.

The night began with public comment. More than a dozen people — students, parents and teachers — spoke in favor of renewing the charter. Following the public comment, Harry Mathias gave a PowerPoint presentation about Sugar Valley Rural Charter School. Mathias is an independent consultant hired by the district to conduct a comprehensive report and was the superintendent of the Central Columbia School District from 2000 until he retired 2019. Over the course of 90-plus minutes,

Mathias dove into the school’s finances, attendance records and student performance. In addition to the PowerPoint presentation, Mathias provided the board with hard copies of his report. He noted that not everything in the report was included in the PowerPoint presentation. The 185-page comprehensive report is also available online.

One of the areas in the report that Mathias highlighted was Sugar Valley’s poor performance in standardized testing. Mathias cited the PSSAs dating back to 2015. In the 2015 PSSAs, Keystone Central students outperformed Sugar Valley in 13 of 14 categories. The scores, Mathias said, were 15 percent lower. In the 2016 PSSAs, Keystone Central outperformed Sugar Valley in 9 of 14 categories. And in the 2017 PSSAs, Keystone Central had better scores in 12 of 14 categories.

Lynch selected a group of fourth grade math scores and followed them through the next few grades. There was no improvement through the next few years. In fact, scores dropped.

“That’s startling to me,” she said, “how they can drop that significantly?”

There were similar results in the Keystone Exams from 2015 through 2018.

“In three years, in no case did Sugar Valley outperform Keystone Central,” Mathias said.

Mathias also said there were some red flags with the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School’s budget.

“The uncommitted or unassigned reserve fund balance (which) amounts as part of the total budget, since 2015-16 exceeds the percentages recommended or allowed by public school districts in Pennsylvania,” Mathias said.

The Keystone Central School District and Sugar Valley Rural Charter School have two decades of history.

The Sugar Valley Rural Charter School was established in 1999 when the original charter was approved by the state Department of Education. SVRCS is a public school option available at no cost to families and is located within the Keystone Central School District.

In 2015, the charter for Sugar Valley Rural Charter School was denied by a 7-2 vote. At that time, Elling and Deborah Smith were the two votes to approve the charter. Rosamilia and Koch both voted to deny the charter in 2015. The renewal effort was not finalized until the middle of 2016 when the board approved it by a narrow 5-4 vote.

The charter school’s budget is comprised of approximately 96 local revenue sources — including Jersey Shore Area School District — which are received through tuition that is charged to the home district of the students who attend.

At its October meeting, the Keystone Central School District Board tabled payments to the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School. Those bills were for tuition for the period of July-October for $557,891, $411,448, $593,579 and $658,100 — a total of $2.2 million. It is unclear at this time if those bills will be paid.