By Simon Brown
Some “school choice” advocates hold up charter schools as a superior alternative to standard public schools, but as a situation in Pennsylvania has shown, some of these charter schools can lead to misuse of public funds.
The Pocono Mountain Charter School in Tobyhanna may have violated a number of state laws, including diverting taxpayer money to Shawnee Tabernacle Church, from which it leases a building. The school may have also improperly received $87,101 in state rental reimbursements because of its lease with the church, according to the Allentown Morning Call.
The newspaper obtained a preliminary report from the state auditor-general, exposing a number of other ethical and legal charges against the school. These included multiple violations of the Pennsylvania Ethics Act rule about conflicts of interest by the Rev. Dennis Bloom, who is president of Shawnee Tabernacle and was CEO of the school until December 2010.
These alleged violations include:
• Bloom instructed the church to enter into a 2007 lease agreement that required the charter school to construct a 35,000-square-foot addition that would connect to Shawnee Tabernacle;
• The school's lease payments to the church increased 124 percent to $920,000 between the 2005-06 school year and the end of construction of the addition in 2007;
• Pennsylvania taxpayers footed more than $900,000 in construction costs for the school, which included a gym floor with the words “Shawnee Tabernacle,” a parking lot, elevator and an outdoor electronic sign, all of which will be owned by the church once the lease ends;
• The school gym, which is stocked with $200,000 in equipment, is closed for school use during non-school hours but is open for free to the Tobyhanna Impact Athletic Center, a nonprofit founded in 2008 by Bloom’s daughter; and
• Teachers at the school earned only $20,000 per year, but Bloom was paid $120,000 plus bonuses while CEO, and his wife, Gricel, earned $76,000 plus bonuses as assistant CEO.
The auditor-general’s report is not the first allegation of scandal surrounding Bloom, his school and his church. In October 2010, the Pocono Mountain School Board pulled the charter school's right to operate as an independent public school after an investigation unveiled numerous conflict-of-interest violations that allegedly occurred between 2007 and 2010, according to the Morning Call.
But the state Charter Appeals Board later reversed that decision, and Pocono Mountain officials are still assessing the board’s ruling.
It’s fitting that this saga has played out in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett (R) pushed for expanded “school choice” programs, including voucher subsidies and tax-credit schemes. His plan last year was passed by the Senate before it died in the House of Representatives.
This is a prime example of why Corbett’s scheme was so ill-conceived. Taxpayer funds can all too easily be diverted to religious purposes through “school choice” projects. Bloom’s school was apparently just a funnel for his personal interests and that of his church.
While not every charter school, or even most, are going rogue, many private schools are run by sectarian institutions and state dollars should not be used to fund them.
Maybe Bloom’s story and the legislative defeat is enough to convince Corbett to abandon voucher schemes for good.