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September 19, 2012

New Berlin charter school officials on the hot seat

They get grilled for more than three hours

MIFFLINBURG — MIFFLINBURG - Area school board members questioned the application for the proposed New Berlin Regional Charter School for more than three hours during public hearing Tuesday night.

Lewisburg, Mifflinburg and Selinsgrove school districts were all represented at the meeting held at Mifflinburg Area Senior High School before an audience of about 40, including teachers.

The K-4 public charter school must win approval from all three districts in order to form.

“Offering a choice to a child can never be a bad thing,” said Vincent Stoops, of Selinsgrove, a member of the charter school coalition, which he said was a group of concerned parents, teachers and others who feel an alternative in public education in the Valley is viable.

“Incorporating a different model (to learning) could be effective,” Stoops said.

He represented the charter school coalition with Marie Smith, of Mifflinburg, who addressed curriculum questions, and David Farmer, of New Berlin, who answered general questions.

With that came an assortment of probing questions, particularly from Lewisburg directors.

Kathy Swope, Lewisburg’s school board president, was disturbed over what she called discrepancies in the application.

“It’s important to recognize that in obtaining a charter, we’re granting permission for you to operate a public school,” Swope said. “This application becomes a contract, and we all have a tremendous responsibility to scrutinize it carefully.”

Swope asked the charter school board to clarify the number of teachers it proposed beginning with, how they would be paid, increasing the budget for more teachers and standards for teacher evaluations, among other concerns she had.

“This whole (school) idea is based on student achievement,” Swope said, “but I’m deeply concerned that you mention nothing of student achievement” in the application.

The charter school proposes curriculum structured along Common Core State Standards. However, Lewisburg schools Superintendent Mark DiRocco noted that Pennsylvania is one of just two states in the nation that doesn’t recognize Common Core and is looking to create its own standards set.

DiRocco also expressed concern about evaluations of special education students, noting it needs to be done by a panel of psychologists and trained professionals, all of whom cost money, which didn’t appear budgeted.

Director Michael Payne asked if the motivation for the charter school, to be based in New Berlin, was losing the elementary school there.

“I know it’s painful to lose a school,” he said, “but I don’t see a central vision in your application.”

Stoops said the charter school was a separate interest from New Berlin Elementary School, which closed last school year, and that the “mission, simply said, is children and what’s best for them.”

Stoops said several times that under state charter school law, the school boards could not reject the application based on budgetary issues and that he hoped the district representatives “came here with an open mind to a charter school. It would be worse for the kids to come here with your minds made up.”

Swope answered quickly.

“I can assure you we came with an open mind,” she said. “This is more than choice. Whether your application meets standard questions put forth and illustrated. We are looking at what’s best for the kids.”

A decision is due from each school board within 75 days of the meeting.

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