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The state supreme court has removed roadblocks for establishing charter schools in Pennsylvania, according to one of the victorious attorneys in a case in which a high court majority rejected several arguments by taxpayers that a charter school petition should have been turned down in the West Chester School District. William H. Lamb of Lamb Windle & McErlane in West Chester, Pa., who represented the Collegium Charter School, said that the opinion was “a flagship case for charter schools” seeking certification in the state. In one of the central issues faced by the justices, the majority decided a regional charter is not necessary when the charter school recruits and enrolls students from an outside school district, although that school district must still pay taxes to the school. The majority in West Chester School District v. Collegium Charter School affirmed each aspect of the Commonwealth Court’s ruling, including its decision that a charter school appeal board can reverse a school district’s decision to deny a charter school application. Lamb said the decision will make an impact in Pennsylvania education law. “This is a flagship case for charter schools in the future,” he said. “It was pretty clear to us that the school district was trying to put roadblocks in the way of legitimate charter applications and schools. What the court said is that you can’t do that.” Joining Lamb were R. David Walk and Nancy E. Stewart of Philadelphia’s Hoyle, Morris & Kerr; Guy A. Donatelli and Joel L. Frank of West Chester’s Lamb Windle & McErlane; Maura K. Quinlan and Philip J. Murren of Ball, Murren & Connell in Harrisburg, Pa. Ross A. Unruh of Unruh, Turner, Burke & Frees in West Chester represented the school district. The taxpayers were represented by Somerset, Pa., attorney William R. Lloyd and Lynn Lepore Wilson of the State Education Association. Joseph M. Miller of the Department of Education and Jeffrey D. Litts of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association filed amicus briefs. According to the opinion, on Nov. 13, 1998, Collegium submitted a charter school application to the district board requesting a five-year charter. Collegium intended to enter into a management agreement with a for-profit corporation called Mosaica Education Inc. Mosaica would provide Collegium with both educational and administrative services. The board held three public hearings, and in February 1999, the board voted six to one to deny the application. The board said Collegium did not show how the charter school would improve the educational opportunity and therefore did not fulfill the legislative intent. Collegium got the requisite number of signatures and ultimately appealed the district’s decision to the State Charter School Appeal Board. In August 1999, the appeal board voted to reverse the district’s decision. The appeal board also denied neighboring taxpayers the right to intervene. Both the school district and the taxpayers appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed the appeal board. The case represented the intermediate appellate court’s first interpretation of the Charter School Law and was considered a firm statement from the court that local school districts do not have the final say in whether a school gets a charter. The taxpayers’ first argument before the state supreme court centered on the CAB’s standard of review. They claimed the Commonwealth Court erred in interpreting the Charter School Law as authorizing the CAB to create new findings of facts while conducting a de novo review of the district board’s record. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala said the taxpayers’ argument failed, as the CAB must apply a de novo standard of review to appeals from the board’s denial of a charter school application, giving “appropriate consideration” to the board’s findings while making an independent determination of the merits of the charter school application. The second issue the justices decided was whether it was an abuse of discretion or an error of law for the CAB chairman to deem the charter approved and execute a separate charter for Collegium on Sept. 29, 1999. The issue required the court to determine when the Charter School Law’s 10-day “deemed approved” period begins. The law states: “Should the local board of directors fail to grant the application and sign the charter within 10 days of notice of the reversal of the decision of the local board of directors, the charter shall be deemed to be approved and shall be signed by the chairman of the [CAB].” Closely following the Commonwealth Court’s reasoning, the majority said the period begins when the school district receives notice of the CAB’s reversal, relying in part on the plain language of the Charter School Law. The finding rejected the taxpayers’ argument that written notice was required. The majority then turned to the question of whether a charter school applicant must apply for a regional charter if it wants to recruit and enroll students from outside the district where the charter school is located. Arguing the answer should be yes, the taxpayers said a regional charter is necessary in that situation because a non-chartering school district has no vote in the adoption of the charter and would not be able to make use of the Charter School Law’s methods of accountability. Therefore, the taxpayers argued, such a district would be required to divert a portion of its tax money to that charter school but not have any power to hold the school accountable for how the money is spent. Zappala said the taxpayers’ concerns were “legitimate,” but the supreme court was not the proper place to air them. Only the General Assembly could properly address those concerns, he said. The court went on to find that the Charter School Law “unquestionably” directs that charter school application be filed only where the charter school is to be located. Zappala cited §§ 17-1717A(c) and 17-1718-A of the law, which both say, in slightly different terms, that that application for a charter school should be filed in the district in which the school is to be located. Zappala also quoted the Commonwealth Court’s decision, in which it said that the General Assembly’s choice not to provide further accountability to non-chartering school districts “indicates its belief that charter schools already are held sufficiently accountable to monitoring entities and reflects the General Assembly’s desire to free charter schools from unnecessary layers of bureaucracy.” The taxpayers also argued, according to the court, that Collegium’s proposed contractual agreement with a for-profit corporation, Mosaica, violates the Charter School Law. They argued, in part, that the charter should have been denied because Mosaica completed the application and because the application was submitted without the approval of trustees. They noted that the trustees had not been appointed when the application was submitted. The taxpayers relied on the Charter School Law’s definitions of “charter school” and “regional charter school.” Those definitions, they argued, state that the charter school must be “organized” as a “public, nonprofit corporation” and specifically prohibits the grant of a charter to a “for-profit entity.” But Zappala said those arguments were not persuasive because Collegium’s articles of incorporation show that it was organized as a non-profit corporation under state law. Further, he said the Charter School Law actually does not forbid a for-profit entity from entering a charter school application. “As noted, it permits a charter school to be ‘established’ by ‘any corporation,’ which includes a for-profit corporation,” Zappala said. “In fact, the CSL implicitly acknowledges that the board of trustees will not be formed at the time the application is submitted.” The majority also rejected the taxpayers’ argument that the CAB abused its discretion by denying their motion to intervene as residents of a school district outside of West Chester. The court said the taxpayers claimed they were eligible to intervene under the General Rules of Administrative Practice and Procedure. The statute grants such eligibility by either a right conferred by statute, an interest which is directly affected and inadequately represented, or an interest by which the petitioner’s intervention would be in the public interest. Zappala said the taxpayers met none of those eligibility requirements. “As recognized by the Commonwealth Court, the taxpayers are not left without representation,” Zappala said. “Their interests in the expenditure of their tax dollars are protected by their respective school districts and they can voice their opinion through use of the ballot box.” Justice Russell M. Nigro, in a six-page dissenting opinion, said the regional charter provisions of the law could be given meaning only if they are interpreted as “providing an approval mechanism for a proposed charter school that is specifically intended to serve a greater region than the school district in which it is located.” Participation from all the school districts affected is also necessary to promote the law’s intention of improving student learning, increasing learning opportunities and encouraging the use of innovative teaching methods, Nigro commented. “I would hold that where, as here, a charter school applicant plans at the outset to actively recruit students from select school districts other than that in which the school is physically located,” Nigro said, “the CSL requires the applicant to apply for a regional charter, thereby giving those school districts a much deserved voice in the denial or approval of the charter.”

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