John Kowalko Doesn’t Hate Charter Schools But…

When you think of those who don’t support charter schools in Delaware, one of the first names that pops up is State Representative John Kowalko, from the 25th Rep. District.  Known for his arguments against charter schools, specifically Delaware’s biggest- Newark Charter School, it can be easy to make the assumption Kowalko hates charter schools.  However, that is not the case.

Earlier this weekend, Kowalko sent out an email to his constituents with his thoughts and beefs on Delaware charter schools. Continue reading

***UPDATED***Delaware Approves $20.7 Million So Markell & Sokola Can Have Safe Bike Rides But Ignore Special Education Funding Bill?

markellcyclingThis is the heart of what is wrong with Delaware.  In an article by Bike Delaware, the group brags about how the General Assembly approved $20.7 million for bike trail improvements in Delaware.  Meanwhile, students considered to be basic special education in Kindergarten to 3rd grade, go for a sixth year without special education funding from the state.  Pork indeed!  Now before bicycling enthusiasts come at me, I fully support bicycle safety and awareness.  While I don’t ride a bicycle these days, I think it is important for further safety for the sport.  But not at the expense of children in public schools!  And we can say this is part of the capital budget, not the operating budget.  But money shifts around ALL the time at Legislative Hall.

We are especially grateful for the leadership of State Senator Dave Sokola, the co-chair of the committee that wrote the capital budget, and Governor Jack Markell. It’s not a coincidence that Senator Sokola biked to work yesterday (about 60 miles) and Governor Markell biked to work today (also about 60 miles).

I have no doubt it isn’t a coincidence!  And by mentioning how Sokola is the co-chair of the committee that writes the capital budget, you might as well throw out the words “conflict of interest”.  Are we really saying, as a state, that despite all the arguments about education funding and how we will “commit to doing better next year” that our General Assembly approved $20.7 million in taxpayer funds for what amounts to a select special interest for a hobby?  But the legislators who question this kind of nonsense are considered “unpatriotic” by people like State Rep. Melanie Smith…

This is a disgrace.  How much longer will high-needs students continue to go without while fat-cats like Senator David Sokola and Governor Jack Markell can bike to Legislative Hall?  While I was not always supportive of the WEIC plan, I think that was much more worthy than bike trails.  We have schools that desperately need restoration and improvements, but paths for cyclists are more important?  What the hell is wrong with this state and when will our legislators finally step up and say no as a collective body to this insanity?  We have homeless people, increasing violence in our cities, and jobs that don’t pay as much as they used to.  We have police that aren’t getting the funds they need to effectively do their jobs.  But this is okay?

House Bill 30 would have guaranteed funding for students in Kindergarten to 3rd Grade with the designation of basic special education.  Based on a unit-count system, these children get no state funding in these grades.  It is one of the most transparent and visible flaws in Delaware education funding.  But I suppose it is okay to ignore the needs of the most vulnerable of children so people like Jack Markell and David Sokola, whose very agendas and laws have further demeaned these children multiple times, can get more out of their bicycle hobby.  What a joke!

What kind of Governor bikes sixty miles to work?  What if something happens to him?  Is that in the best interest of the state to have your Governor biking to work on a hot day?  Do his bodyguards have to bike with him?  Do they get extra duty hazard pay for that?  Since we don’t have a Lieutenant Governor and something happened to Jack while bike-riding, who steps up then? Schwartzkopf?  Good lord!

I can think of many different ways we could have allocated these funds in a “tough budget year”.  The Delaware Joint Finance Committee and the folks on the Bond Committee need to open their eyes and see what they are doing to this state.  Meanwhile, cyclists across the state rejoice!  While students suffer…

Updated, 7/5/16, 2:35pm: On Bike Delaware’s Facebook page, the group responded to comments made on there about this article with the following:

80% of this money comes from the federal government for transportation system (capital) investments. The federal government does not permit this money to be spent on schools (or anything not related to transportation). It’s deeply unfair to criticize Governor Markell and Senator Sokola for failing to spend these federal transportation dollars on schools. Neither Governor Markell or Senator Sokola have any authority to re-program this money this way. (They can spend it on walking and cycling projects rather than new roads but they can’t spend it on schools or libraries or hospitals or anything not related to transportation.)

To which I responded:

Be that as it may, it is just more pork. Even more distressing this comes at a federal level when IDEA Special Education funding at a federal level is at 37.5% of what it should be when the law was reauthorized in 2004. While that has absolutely nothing to do with Bike Delaware, it is symptomatic of a disease in our country where those who already have so much more than others get more while those who don’t have those luxuries lose out. I’m pretty sure an argument could be made somewhere that Delaware’s transportation grants from the Feds could be used to get rid of the Neighborhood Schools Act which has further segregated our schools, especially in Wilmington. Funding is twisted all the time in our state, this should not be an exception. Once again, though, I do want to reiterate this is not a slam against those who enjoy biking, but rather what I consider to be a misuse of funds during a time when others desperately need funding for more apparent reasons.  With your permission, may I update my article with your comment?

And their response:

Please do. To repeat, it’s not within either Governor Markell’s or Senator Sokola’s discretion to spend these federal transportation dollars on anything other than transportation projects. All they have done is take about ~5% of those FY17 dollars and dedicated them for improving the state for people walking and cycling. And, given that Delaware is the deadliest state in America for pedestrians, it’s not out-of-line for the state to be making improvements that make it safer for people to walk and bicycle. Not to mention, that 2/3rds of Delawareans are overweight or obese and making it safe for people to be more physically active is a critical public health priority. And, if you are an environmentalist, every bike trip that replaces a car trip means less air pollution….These are urgent public policy priorities that have absolutely nothing to do with anybody’s “hobby.”

I appreciate Bike Delaware’s response, but like I said, this is a matter of what side you agree on.  Regardless of where the funds generate from, we live in a country where those who have the luxury and time to bike over bridges along the C&D Canal in Delaware have that ability.  But I fail to see how these bike trails, while I’m sure are utilized by some who are less fortunate, will solve obesity problems and pedestrian deaths.  In my opinion, I think pet projects like this are pushed by people like Markell and Sokola so they can enjoy them, not the people who probably aren’t even aware things like this exist because they are too busy looking for work, or already work several jobs, just to put food on the table.  And it goes all the way up to a federal level and funds are locked in for specific purposes like this so they can only be used for pet projects by legislators and Governors.

*the above picture is from DelDOT

Sussex Academy Gets A Pool Donated By Board Member’s Two Sons & Their Real Estate Company

A couple weeks ago, I was hanging out at Legislative Hall with some folks, and we were discussing how Sussex Academy, the only charter school in Sussex Academy, is having a pool built on their campus.  We were wondering how they could afford a pool.  That would have been a huge capital expense for a traditional school district, much less a charter school.  But then we found out the pool was donated by a company, so no hot story there.  Some company called Schell Brothers.

It fell off my radar as those kind of things do.  I was getting rid of some files on my computer, and I tend to bookmark all the charter school board minutes.  I saw the Sussex Academy minutes from April, and I wondered if there was any mention of the pool in there.  I didn’t see any.  I did see some notes about how they were going to charge students $10 to get a permit to park on campus.  When the school got the permit back, they would be refunded $5.00.  I thought that was odd but nothing huge.

Then I looked up at their board members, and a name popped out at me.  Joseph Schell.  I immediately put the names together…Joseph Schell…Schell Brothers.  Did a board member donate a pool to the school?  No.  His twin sons did, through their real estate company, Schell Brothers.  The company was funded through a trust named after Joseph Schell.

That’s really awesome!  The school gets a pool!  I have to wonder though, does the donation include the planned second floor balcony and the elevator to get to that second floor?  Does it include all the costs associated with the pool: water, electricity, maintenance, chlorine, insurance costs?  Or is that something the state will pay for?  I would be happy if Joseph Schell or anyone from the school can provide these answers.  It’s a Sunday evening as I write this, so I’m sure the school isn’t open.  The only mention of the pool in their board minutes comes in January 2015, when Joseph Schell announces “a local business will pay for an aquatic center which should be complete mid 2015 or early 2016.”  I would love to hear the recordings of all their board meetings to get more details, but alas, the school doesn’t do that.

Sussex Academy is receiving $60,703 as per Senate Bill 160, the bond bill.  The total for all charters is over $1.4 million dollars for minor capital improvements.  They are allotted the same portion as a vo-cational school district based on unit funds.  Apparently it doesn’t matter if the state owns the properties or not.  So add in the $1.4 million the charters got to keep from the charter school transportation slush fund, whereby they get to keep any excess transportation costs over their contracted bid amount from their budget for “educational purposes”.  Oh yeah, they also get $1 million this year for their performance award.  That’s, let me do some non-common core math here, $3.8 million dollars for charter schools.  And our budget was short how much this year before all the other cuts… $68 million?

Back to Sussex Academy.  Did the board vote on this donation?  Did Joseph Schell recuse himself from the vote due to a potential conflict of interest?  What if something pool related comes up for a vote?  Would the fact that a board member has very close blood relationships with the owners of the company that gave the pool to them have any potential for an issue?  I can’t imagine it would be a problem unless Joseph Schell is the head of the finance committee for the school.  Just because he speaks on all financial matters in their board minutes doesn’t mean he runs that show.

Sussex Academy received over $4.6 million in revenues as per their 2014 tax form 1099.  It did mention the Sussex Academy Foundation which donated over $1.4 million to the school in 2014.  This seems to be from donations.  Curiously, on their 990 form, in schedule E, they wrote “The Academy is fully supported through grants and funding from local school districts, and therefore does not solicit contributions from outside organizations.”  Well, that’s a relief!  I’m just glad they marked no for all the areas marked in Section 5 of schedule E, especially item B.  You know, the part about the organization discriminating by race in any way with respect to admissions policies.  I’m sure that whole ACLU complaint to the Office of Civil Rights matter against the Delaware Department of Education and Red Clay Consolidated School District, which mentions Sussex Academy as an example of discrimination and segregation, will clear itself up…

To get a look at all of the school’s board minutes and 990 tax forms, look no further than here, all on one page: https://saparents.team-logic.com/index.cfm?teamLogic=deptPages.view&groupID=215

Odyssey Charter School Applies For Performance Fund $$$ They Don’t Even Qualify For!!!!

Last, but not least (well, it is in terms of the odds of them getting a penny from the Charter School Performance Fund), is Odyssey Charter School.  They don’t qualify for this because they were on probation during this fiscal year.  But that doesn’t stop them from applying anyway!  So let’s see what they wanted to get with this phantom money:

And we can’t forget the phantom budget!

So let me get this straight, they have a $500,000 shortfall in their capital budget for this building, they are already overbudget by $700,000 in their regular expenses (see last week’s Odyssey article), and whoever wrote this application doesn’t seem to be aware DCAS is no longer the state standardized assessment.  One word: INTERVENTION!

Newark Charter School Performance Fund Application

This one is VERY interesting!  The top prize allocated to any recipient of this performance award is $250,000, but Newark Charter School is asking for $400,000 to support the construction of their STEM labs and Fine Performing Arts Center.  Which is good, you can use this fund for capital costs.  And they are already getting funds from The Longwood Foundation for this:

The Longwood Foundation has agreed to assist the school in the renovations to the JR/SR High School for STEM and Fine & Performing Arts.

It’s not every school that gets Theire DuPont to come check you out!

Source: http://ncs.charter.k12.de.us/files/_FRAup_/2a0a2af04ad981653745a49013852ec4/Board_Minutes_May_19_2015.pdf

But let’s see what their application says:

And did they already get those funds?  What are “expense recoveries”?  It’s hard to say cause this doesn’t say where the funds are coming from….

NEWARK CHARTER SCHOOL – NEWARK CHARTER SCHOOL for FY 2015 Period 1 thru 11

Amount:
$1,711,393.56
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Category General Fund Federal Fund Capital Fund Special Fund
FEDERAL REIMBURSEMENT $0.00 $436,118.73 $0.00 $0.00
INTEREST ON DEPOSITS $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $51,445.35
USDA DOE MEAL REIMBURSEMENT $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $107,661.92
EXPENSE RECOVERIES $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $1,116,167.56

And like their brethren school located in the Christina School District, Newark Charter School got to keep over $400,000 from the Charter School Transportation Slush Fund from the past two fiscal years…