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Students exit La Academia Partnership Charter School at the end of a school day in 2017.

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At risk of losing substantial donor support, a Lancaster charter school serving historically underperforming, at-risk students is taking a step toward independence more than two decades after its creation.

Founded by the nonprofit Spanish American Civic Association in 1998, La Academia Partnership Charter School, the county’s lone brick and mortar charter school, is working to bring its business services in-house, shifting the responsibility away from SACA.

SACA has always managed the school’s money, the vast majority of which comes from local taxpayers.

The shift represents an important step to becoming a self-sustaining, independent institution, as concerns from its donors over a potential conflict of interest appear to be rising, school officials say.

“In the early days, La Academia was a fledgling charter school, and it needed the support of another organization,” SACA president and La Academia school board Vice President Carlos Graupera said. “It’s been more than 20 years, and La Academia has (grown), and maturity calls for standing on your own.”

In addition to handling La Academia’s finances, SACA is the school’s landlord. In 2018-19, SACA collected about $468,000 for these services — $322,000 for rent at 30 N. Ann St. and 38 N. Ann St., and $146,000 for business management.

Although the charter school is privately run, it’s publicly funded through its students’ home school districts.

The school — which, according to the latest state Department of Education data, had an operating budget of $3.49 million in 2017-18 — received about $2.3 million from school districts in 2017-18.

The vast majority of La Academia’s students come from School District of Lancaster, but a handful come from Columbia Borough, Conestoga Valley, Hempfield, Manheim Township, Penn Manor and Solanco school districts.

School officials told LNP students typically come to La Academia one or two grade levels behind, which could explain, in part, why La Academia’s standardized test scores consistently fall far below the state average.

The move isn’t a complete divorce, however. Graupera will remain on the school’s board, and SACA will remain the school’s landlord.

‘Perceived’ conflict of interest

This summer, officials from the Lancaster County STEM Alliance, a nonprofit helping the school evolve into a STEM-focused, project-based learning school, expressed concerns about the relationship between the school and SACA.

A letter sent to the school board in June stated The Steinman Foundation, in collaboration with the STEM Alliance, has invested nearly $769,000 in La Academia’s school improvement efforts.

Among the ways that money was used was infusing project-based learning into the school’s curriculum, providing employees with professional development and coaching opportunities, paying for and facilitating a national search for a new principal, overhauling the school’s internet infrastructure, purchasing laptops for teachers and Chromebooks for every student, installing a new science lab and connecting the school to community resources and additional funding sources, according to Sandy Strunk, the alliance’s executive director.

The Steinman Foundation, the alliance’s parent organization, is a local, independent family foundation that is funded by the companies that make up Steinman Communications; those companies include LNP Media Group.

Specifically, the STEM Alliance urged La Academia to transfer its finances from SACA and provide its school board with governance training, stating in the letter that “good governance is a fundamental component of any highly functioning organization.” If it didn’t do so by the end of the year, the nonprofit would cut off support to the school.

The school responded, pledging to make changes by the new year. But not before defending itself.

School board President Aida Ceara wrote in a letter several days later that the board was concerned with the “tone, tenor, and the underlining, if not overt, implication of financial impropriety and deliberate wrongdoing.”

Ceara later told LNP that SACA has had a strong, decadeslong track record, and the school, whose five-year charter was renewed by School District of Lancaster last year, never considered its SACA ties as a conflict of interest. While SACA has handled the school’s bookkeeping and accounting, it’s been done through the guidance of the principal, Ceara said.

The school is annually audited by financial consulting firm Baker Tilly, she added.

“Perception sometimes becomes reality,” Ceara said, “especially in this climate that we live in.”

Moving forward

Tommy Henley, the school’s new principal, has been put in charge of the transition away from SACA.

“We can stand alone as a school,” he said. “School finances are definitely the first step.”

Henley is spearheading the search for La Academia’s first director of school finance. Matt Pryzywara, chief financial officer for the School District of Lancaster, has helped with the search, Henley said.

Two finalists have emerged, but Henley said he is still accepting applications.

The school had hoped to hire someone by today, but Henley told LNP on Monday that a candidate hasn’t been chosen. The transition away from SACA, he has said, should be complete by the alliance’s deadline, Dec. 31.

Board governance training, also included in the deal between La Academia and the STEM Alliance, was conducted earlier this month.

If all goes according to plan, the STEM Alliance’s partnership with the school is likely to continue. And that, Strunk said, is good news for an institution that has tremendous promise.

“It's not going to happen overnight, but it can happen,” she said of the school’s improvement. “And we're started down a path that makes that very, very possible.”