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32 districts file suit against W. Pa. cyber charter school

Saturday, May 11, 2002

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Thirty-two school districts in Pennsylvania filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday against the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School based in Midland, Beaver County.

The suit is the latest of several legal challenges to cyber charter schools, which deliver instruction to students at home through the Internet.

Last July, Butler Area School District sued Einstein Academy, a Bucks County cyber charter school, arguing that Einstein does not comply with Pennsylvania laws governing charter schools. Since then, more than 100 other districts have joined that lawsuit.

Butler Area also is among the plaintiffs in the suit filed yesterday in Butler County Common Pleas Court. Other districts in the region include Karns City Area, Mars Area, Slippery Rock Area, Indiana Area and Belle Vernon.

The suit generally claims that the Midland cyber school isn't a charter school under current state law.

More specifically, it claims that Midland School District "essentially granted a charter to itself" to operate the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. The suit contends that the charter application wasn't even completed until after the school opened for the 2000-01 school year, and that the charter school board held an organizational meeting six months after it had been opened.

The suit also questions the relationship between Midland School District and the cyber school. Nick Trombetta, the chief administrator of the charter school, also is the superintendent of Midland School District. Several other district officials are on the board of the charter school.

The lawsuit contends the cyber school "is using taxpayer funds as charitable donations" because Trombetta's contract calls for establishing $500,000 in scholarships and a $10,000 annual donation to the local Carnegie library branch.

But Trombetta said yesterday that language has been removed from his contract and no donations were ever made. He also said that he "found most of the [allegations] to be erroneous."

"It's a continuous bashing," he said of the challenges to cyber schools, adding that his cyber school has spent more than $100,000 in legal fees.

"We're spending too much time and effort in litigation. It's not about the kids. Not one of the school districts have ever picked up the phone and asked, 'Nick, how are our kids doing? How are they learning?' "

Other recent legal actions include a lawsuit filed by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which challenges whether cyber schools can be considered charter schools.

Charter schools are independent, privately operated schools that are overseen by local school boards and receive taxpayer money, but many school districts say the concept was never supposed to apply to the cyber schools, which don't have teachers, students and classes housed together in buildings.

In March, an online publishing company filed a federal lawsuit against Einstein Academy, claiming the school illegally copied course materials without paying for them. And local school districts have filed complaints that the state Department of Education has unfairly withheld state funding from them because they have refused to pay bills owed to one or more of the state's seven cyber schools.

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