Altoona pulls out of cyber school
As one local district cuts ties to a local cyber charter school to save money, another is looking to take it over as a source of revenue.
The Altoona Area school board has cut ties with Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation after managing the cyber charter school for more than a decade.
Altoona Area relinquished its management role in April with a majority of board members believing the district’s partnership with the cyber charter has been inefficient for Altoona Area students and taxpayers.
But Bellwood-Antis School District Superintendent Brian Toth has been in contact with the CPDLF. He plans to take it over in 2013-14 and improve its educational experience for students while generating revenue for the Bellwood-Antis district.
Altoona Area board and district administrators are focusing on developing a more cost-efficient, quality cyber education that they hope will draw their students back to the district for an Altoona Area diploma. A third of the CPDLF’s 134 students are from Altoona Area.
“I believe we can get them back,” high school Principal Patricia Burlingame said.
Most of the CPDLF’s enrollment is comprised of students from central Pennsylvania districts; a few are from outside the region.
Superintendent Dennis Murray has estimated that if the district draws its students back, then the CPDLF, governed by a board of area public school superintendents and administrators, may face a decision to disband the school in three to five years.
Loss of revenue
Cyber charter schools typically drain traditional public school districts of money, a focus of reform among state lawmakers.
More than a decade ago, the Altoona school district successfully established the CPDLF with other area districts.
Of the state’s 12 cyber charter schools, the CPDLF the only cyber school in central Pennsylvania west of Harrisburg. The districts forming the CPDLF hoped to decrease cyber school tuition, but that plan was shot down by the state government.
Cyber school revenue comes from students’ home public school districts at varying rates decided by the amount the home district would normally spend to educate the student.
For example, the CPDLF bills Altoona Area $6,000 per regular education student while it bills Portage Area School District $9,163 per regular education student.
School districts also are billed varying amounts for special education students, but each is more than $10,000.
Even so, the CPDLF has its advantages.
“What I like about the CPDLF is that it is close and we can keep in contact with our students,” Hollidaysburg Area Superintendent Paul Gallagher said.
The CPDLF bears one other distinction from other cyber schools, one that Toth sees could be a much-needed source of revenue for his district. Money paid for the school’s top jobs could go to Bellwood-Antis School District coffers if Toth takes a side job as CPDLF chief executive officer and other Bellwood-Antis administrators take more of the top positions from the Altoona district.
The Altoona Area board scrapped its district’s management contract with the cyber school, seeing it an actual loss of revenue for the district despite the administration’s reports of financial gain.
Altoona Area currently staffs the CPDLF with its top administrators, provides technology services and an office to base its operations at the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center.
That deal has resulted in the $123,302 recovery of the $332,177 paid to the CPDLF for tuition in 2011-12.
Having control of a cyber school is a dream for any public school, Altoona Area superintendent and CPDLF CEO Dennis Murray has said.
However, board member Sharon Bream, business manager for Evergreen Farms, said the district has been losing money from the deal because the hourly rates the district charges for its administrators’ services does not include full pension costs or health care costs.
Bream not only believes the district is subsidizing the CPDLF through its deal, she also sees a conflict of interest for Altoona Area employees who staff and manage the CPDLF.
“When we are paying our employees for their jobs, that is what they should be doing – that is what they should be paid to do,” Bream said.
Toth said the school board is reviewing Altoona Area’s current management agreement with the CPDLF to make modifications.
“We look at it as a revenue stream, and as a smaller district, that would benefit us,” he said.
Toth is confident that if Altoona successfully draws its students from the CPDLF, the cyber charter will continue to exist, but difficult budget decisions would have to be made to adapt to the loss of revenue.
“If [the CPDLF] lost a third of its students, you would have to go through budget cuts like any school district,” he said. “I don’t know where that would start should that happen.”
The CPDLF received a total of $1.2 million from local, state and federal funding for the current school year, budget documents state.
Its fourth largest expense, at $144,951, was conference travel, telephone, advertising and insurance costs.
Toth, who hopes to take over as CEO of the school, said advertising is needed because the CPDLF seeks to attract students to plug into the school’s system from all over the state.
A total of $134,000 was spent on student computers, instructional software, licenses and materials; $126,000 was spent for special education software materials and supplies. Salaries are the district’s highest expense, totaling $250,000.
The school employs 26 student mentors, many of whom are teachers at area school districts.
The subject of how employees balance work at the district and cyber schools was discussed during an Altoona Area board meeting this year.
Altoona Area Assistant High School Principal Jim Bufalini, a former CPDLF student mentor, said he worked evenings and weekends and corresponded with CPDLF students through email during free periods during the school day.
Bufalini’s disclosure that he corresponded with CPDLF students during the school day did not sit well with Bream, who said she was “totally against that.”
Teachers’ CPDLF pay goes into their pockets, but administrators’ compensation goes to the district.
Altoona Area’s administrators use time sheets to record the hours worked at the CPDLF, and the district bills the cyberschool for those employees’ services.
Currently, Superintendent Dennis Murray is the CPDLF chief executive officer. Former Assistant Superintendent Norm Miller held the CEO position until his resignation in 2012. Altoona Area technology director Bryce Cossitor is the CPDLF technology director, and CPDLF Operations Manager Steve Benson is also Altoona Area Internet and media services administrator, the CPDLF website states. The Altoona district also provides special education services for a price.
As Toth considers taking on the responsibilities to generate revenue for his district, he is aware that he would be taking the reigns of a cyber program that needs to be improved.
“If we take over the cyber charter, we will have to take a hard look at it to see what we can do to increase achievement of students,” Toth said.
Following the trend of other cyber schools in the state, the CPDLF has failed to meet state standards for student achievement. CPDLF students’ standardized test scores have fallen for reading and math since 2010, Pennsylvania Department of Education data shows.
In 2012, the CPDLF did not meet state requirements for academic performance or graduation rate.
Burlingame, Altoona High’s principal, has found that students who have come back to the district from cyber schools drop out shortly after returning because they’ve lagged behind lesson plans followed in traditional schooling.
She is eager to provide a quality education through the district’s in-house cyber academy and to attract students who’ve enrolled in the CPDLF and other Pennsylvania-based cyber schools. With an in-house cyber program, she said teachers can ensure cyber students are learning on the same level as their traditional school peers.
“The purpose for this is to save the district money and to make sure kids are graduating, because they come back [from cyber school] with nothing learned and it affects my dropout rate, quite frankly,” Burlingame has said.
Providing online regular education curriculum for 30 students in the fall will cost Altoona $160,304. For six special needs students, the cost is an added $35,252.
By comparison, a district budget analysis shows taxpayers paid $207,857 to send 30 regular education students to the CPDLF. If those students are drawn back to the district, $47,553 could be saved in regular cyber education. Another $40,235 could be saved if the district draws back six special education students who attend the CPDLF at a cost of $75,487.
Toth’s district is also developing a home-district cyber academy like Altoona Area, but he believes his district’s in-house program could function in conjunction with the CPDLF instead of against it.
He intends to add a stipulation to the CPDLF management contract that would allow Bellwood-Antis students to supplement their traditional education with online courses the district’s in house cyber program doesn’t provide.
“Online courses are not a requirement for graduation, but I think it is coming,” he said.
“If we have the opportunity to work with the CPDLF we will do what we can at Bellwood so current CPDLF students are successful with their education and more opportunities are presented to Bellwood students.”
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.