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HARRY MATHIAS

Each school district that Harry Mathias Jr. represents through the Pennsylvania School Boards Association differs, but their administrations and elected leaders share at least one concern.

They believe cyber charter schools not only fail students seeking an alternative method of education, but have also created an unfair funding formula for public schools and taxpayers.

Mathias, a retired superintendent from Central Columbia School District, serves as an advocacy ambassador for the northeastern region of the state. PSBA advocacy ambassadors act as liaisons between school districts and legislators.

The Lackawanna Trail School Board invited Mathias to present a legislative advocacy workshop during a conference session on Feb. 12 in hopes of pushing elected officials to take action.

The creation of brick and mortar charter schools was authorized in Pennsylvania in 1997 under the Charter School Law. In 2002, it was amended to also authorize cyber charter schools.

The state requires schools to foot the tuition for students who live in their district, but decide to pursue an outside charter program, causing a financial burden for districts across the state.

In the 2018-19 school year, Lackawanna Trail spent $773,795 on cyber charter school tuition, according to its business manager, Keith Glynn. Additionally, the district spent $59,437 on district students attending Howard Gardner, a brick and mortar school in Scranton.

Reform for the Charter School Law has not been on the radar until recently, Mathias said.

Besides school districts and advocacy groups such as PSBA speaking up, those in Harrisburg have also been taking notice, with Gov. Tom Wolf’s call for reform being a catalyst, he said.

Additionally, House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Curt Sonney, R-Erie, has introduced House Bill 1897, which PSBA has identified as a key piece of legislation.

If passed, all school districts would have to offer a full-time cyber education program by the start of the 2021-22 school year with certain requirements, as well as two alternatives.

This school year, Lackawanna Trail launched the Lackawanna Trail Cyber Academy in hopes of bringing back students from third party programs. District officials have praised the academy for its quality, lower cost and accountability for student attendance and success.

Just like brick and mortar students, participants in the cyber academy could participate in extracurriculars and receive a Lackawanna Trail diploma at graduation.

In the 2019-20 school year, 25 students enrolled. Sixteen remain active.

“I think we can reach everyone’s needs now,” Lackawanna Trail Superintendent Matthew Rakauskas said.

Only a small portion of students who decide to pursue a cyber charter program leave because of issues such as bullying, he believes.

“The majority of the students we lose are trying to escape accountability for truancy and disciplinary acts like suspension and detention,” Rakauskas said.

When students experience bullying, Rakauskas said the principals of both the elementary center and high school address them quickly and reasonably.

Additionally, students have been leaving Trail for cyber charter schools shown to underperform, he said.

During the workshop, Mathias shared the most effective ways for building working relationships with legislators. The district hopes to target Rep. Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, as well as Senators Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Twp., and John Blake, D-Archbald.

He also referenced resources for further research, such as psba.org, pacharterchange.org, and successstartshere.org.

Moving forward, Rakauskas said district officials plan to come up with a methodical strategy to push for reform. Brian Petula, a newly elected board member, also plans to attend Advocacy Day in Harrisburg this year.

Invited representatives from other school districts weren’t present for the workshop, though Rakauskas said Abington Heights, Tunkhannock Area and Mountain View school districts have expressed interest in joining forces.

“We’re not going away,” he said. “We’re going to keep pushing.”