Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Charter school friends, foes air their feelings Plan before SDL board has many supporters and detractors
nA final hearing on the plan will be held Tuesday. School district officials have arranged to have a city police officer on hand after an earlier meeting became heated. BY GIL SMART, Staff Writer
Sait Onal blames it on the Red Bull.
Onal quaffed the energy drink prior to a Feb. 19 Lancaster school board hearing on the proposed Academy of Business and Entrepreneurship Charter School. The four-hour hearing got out of hand, with Onal -- president of the charter school board -- accusing opponents of lying. Other confrontations between charter school backers and foes prompted school officials to call police.
A final hearing on the plan will be held Tuesday. Onal said he hopes cooler heads will prevail. School district officials have arranged to have a city police officer on hand just in case.
On one side are parents and residents who say the charter plan is full of holes. They're wary of Onal, a Manheim Township businessman who has no experience in education, but who's been involved in previous attempts to establish charter schools here and in Harrisburg.
They wonder why he's so determined -- and whether the Academy of Business and Entrepreneurship Charter School, or ABECS, would be tied to other Turkish-led charter schools around the country linked to a mysterious Turkish imam.
Onal dismisses the concerns. Education, he says, is the ticket out of poverty. And given the low test scores in city schools, he said, people shouldn't be asking why -- "They should," he said, "be asking, 'Why not?' "
The Lancaster school board will vote on the proposed charter school March 19. If approved, ABECS would have an initial budget of $2.4 million; the district would remit $9,386.95 per regular education student and $21,159.56 per special education student. ABECS hopes to enroll 220 K-4 students next school year, and add one grade each year until 2021-22.
The monetary loss could hammer a school district. That's one factor behind the opposition. A bigger one is the proposed curriculum, which foes see as badly flawed.
At the Feb. 19 meeting, SDL Assistant Superintendent Tracy Ocasio said the curriculum lacked specifics on what would be taught and how goals would be measured, and its emphasis on business would leave limited time for reading and writing.
She noted similarities between the ABECS application and those submitted elsewhere, including Allentown. ABECS consultant Harold Kurtz also worked on the proposed Allentown Engineering Academy Charter School, which was rejected by the Allentown school board Thursday.
Dennis Deslippe, an associate professor at Franklin & Marshall College and a district parent, also pored over the curriculum. "It seemed they pulled things from other applications, promised to measure things you can't measure like 'confidence,' and didn't seem to understand (SDL) and the things we have at the secondary level already," he said.
Opponents say Onal seems to want credit for trying, but that isn't enough.
"Their message seems to be, 'The School District of Lancaster has problems' and 'Mr. Onal is a fine fellow' -- like this is a Make-A-Wish moment for him," said Deslippe. "I'm unmoved by his argument that this has been a lifelong dream of his and we should open our wallets and give him our kids."
Added John McGrann, a former school board member and father of two: "It's not like they're passionate about delivering on a specific educational need that's missing in SDL; they just want a school for whatever reason, and latch onto whatever specialty they think will resonate with either the board or the community."
But Indrit Hoxha, an ABECS board member, said the business focus of the school was carefully chosen; it was his idea.
Hoxha, an assistant professor of economics and business administration at Penn State Harrisburg who lives in Mount Joy, sees a "low quality of education of kids coming to college ... especially after the financial crisis, the illiteracy of people (in terms of) financial knowledge."
But "for me to start (a charter school) by myself would take a long time," Hoxha said, "and I'd need to make connections."
Born in Turkey in 1969, he has an undergraduate degree and an MBA from Philadelphia University. A father of two, he's a district manager for Monumental Life Insurance Co.'s Harrisburg region, and he owns Mudi Farm Export, which exports dairy cattle to Turkey.
He's president of the Red Rose Intercultural and Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsors Turkish cultural events and interfaith programs. He's president of the Turkish Cultural Center of Pennsylvania, and he previously ran the Wyoming Educational Foundation, a nonprofit based in northeastern Pennsylvania that operated summer camps for Turkish-Americans. Onal said the group is defunct.
He's been involved in the charter school movement since at least 2006, when he was part of a group backing the Harrisburg Capital Academy. Harrisburg School District ultimately rejected the proposal. In 2008, he led a failed effort to establish the Lancaster Science Academy charter school here.
He's listed as secretary of Dream Schools Inc., a Pittsburgh-area nonprofit that exists to "provide educational services," according to state files. Onal said Dream Schools was formed to sponsor a charter school, but the group is "inactive."
In March 2012, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Dream Schools rents space to two Turkish-led charter schools, Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School in Baldwin, and the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in State College. The latter counts among its board members Dr. Omer Gul, vice president of Dream Schools.
Nationwide, Turkish-Americans have been very active in the charter school movement. Onal said it may be a cultural thing -- Turks, he said, realize the importance of education and want to give back to their communities.
But the preponderance of Turkish-led charters has led to questions about whether the schools constitute a "movement" -- and about ties to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious figure who lives in the Poconos region.
Numerous news outlets have run stories on the "Gulen movement," a network of institutions -- including schools -- that followers have established around the world. On the political right, some have alleged the schools indoctrinate children.
At a December meeting on the Allentown Engineering Academy Charter School, one school board member, citing "the elephant in the room," asked if the founders were affiliated with Gulen. Consultant Kurtz called the question "obscene"; lead applicant Kadir Veziroglu said there were no connections.
Last week, the Loudoun County (Va.) school board rejected the proposed Loudoun Math & IT Academy Charter School after "a storm of allegations that the applicants have hidden ties to a Muslim preacher," according to the Washington Post. The Loudoun applicants, several of whom were of Turkish origin, denied any connection.
"Gulen is someone that everybody knows in Turkey. ... I have read his books," said Onal. But ABECS is "definitely not" affiliated, he said. "I don't even know if there's such a thing as a Gulen school," Onal said.
Onal counts some local legislators among his supporters. Said state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, who penned a letter supporting the ABECS plan, "I have absolutely no reason to believe that this is anything other than them being concerned and trying to help the community, trying to provide something they think will benefit the people who live here."
Other ABECS board members are annoyed at the focus on Onal. "This is not the school of Sait Onal," said Hoxha. "There's a board, there are many people" involved.
But Onal believes ethnic animosities drive the opposition. He blames the Rev. Susan Minasian, chaplain at Franklin & Marshall College, an Armenian-American who has opposed Onal and the charter proposals in part because she believes the school would deny or ignore the Armenian Genocide, the Ottoman government's extermination of minority Armenians.
Turkey, successor state to the Ottoman Empire, has denied the killings constituted genocide.
Onal wonders what that has to do with him. "I was born in Turkey, but I've lived here in United States more than I ever lived in Turkey," he said. "I am not the Turkish government. ... That was 55 years before I was born."
ABECS backers claim Minasian has gotten others at F&M to oppose the school. Hoxha cited a comment by one F&M professor and district resident in a November article, vowing to oppose the school -- which had not yet formally submitted its application.
"What were they going to fight? They didn't know what we are planning to do," said Hoxha.
Onal also said opponents have "bullied" some backers into withdrawing their support. One woman even said she feared for her job, he said.
Several letters of support have been rescinded, though in some cases because they were signed by low-level staff, and top executives did not know they were officially "backing" the proposal. One letter of support came from Mudi Farm Export -- Onal's company; he signed it. Another was signed by Onal's wife, who works for a church-related organization; that letter was withdrawn.
Minasian responded with a statement that read, in part: "This is not about ethnic bias. This is about a deficient application and also the serious concern that should not be minimized about people who deny genocide asking to use our taxpayer dollars to shape the minds of young people for the future. Just as we would not want holocaust deniers leading our schools, we would not want genocide deniers shaping or leading our educational institutions. The applicants continue to repeat the same mistakes and lack of a substantial application, and our community's concerns should rest there."
But Onal said ABECS has broad support: 1,500 people signed petitions or wrote letters backing the plan. He characterizes the opposition as a small, vocal group.
Yet those opponents have frustrated him. Kids in Lancaster need an alternative, one he's willing to help craft. Why don't they see that? Why won't they get behind it?
"We will do what we have to" to address problems with the application, Onal said.
"But we shouldn't be in the spotlight. The children should be in the spotlight."