Sinkhole risk for LVA – why not Southside? (13)

(13th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

John Marquette is a retired librarian/archivist, author, historian, and a resident of Bethlehem. His current project is focused on the restoration of the interior of the Archibald Johnston Mansion in Housenick Park. 


Putting aside the merits of charter schools for a moment, I’m concerned about the proposed Jaindl Boulevard location for Lehigh Valley Academy. It’s not a question of neighborhoods, it’s one of geology. More specifically, it’s about the risk of sinkholes on the 31 acres under consideration.

Pick any excavating contractor out of the phone directory or Google and ask how often they are called to either of the Hanovers, Bethlehem, Palmer, or Forks townships to remediate sinkholes. The geological formation under the rich topsoil is karst — porous limestone. When disturbed, and more importantly, saturated with water, it dissolves and collapses. Buildings built atop them or near them follow. A property I’m associated with on Bath Pike (less than a mile from the school’s site) just spent nearly $15,000 to obtain a site study and fill in a hole. *

Former farmlands and meadows in the Lehigh Valley are at their highest and best use when left more or less alone. Developing them poses risks of creating sinkholes, and the risks for the charter school end up being borne by the taxpayers in the Bethlehem Area School District, either for sinkhole insurance or for remediation of new holes.

The Morning Call covered Parkland’s problems with a sinkhole at a middle school right before the beginning of this academic year. It is costly. We have brownfield properties available on the South Side ready for a school, if the new owners cooperate. Why not ask them?

The state has a great interactive map of sinkhole locations on its Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website (


* I can show you the paperwork from the excavators with our estimates. The geology is very well known. Somebody is going to make a lot of money on the land deal, and you and I apparently will be footing the bill.

Lehigh Valley Academy Charter looks to build (12)

(12th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

“Bethlehem Area Superintendent Joseph Roy, a vocal critic of charter schools, said he doesn’t see the need for the charter school to build a new school with taxpayer money.”

“Most of LVA’s 1,700 students come from Bethlehem Area. The district is paying more than $12 million this year for 1,035 of its students to attend LVA.”

BASD is trying to hold the line on a tax increase, though charter school tuition is increasing $1m. Of the 12 charter schools that approximately 2100 BASD students attend at a taxpayer cost of approximately $30m, 50% attend Lehigh Valley Academy Charter. LVA is “eyeing” a possibly $45m building of its own and increasing enrollment. LVA needs BASD permission, but, if denied, can appeal to the state Charter School Appeal Board.

Gadfly is still looking through the web sites of the 12 charter schools listed in our last post on this charter school topic.

Jacqueline Palochko, “Bethlehem Area School District looking at no tax increase.” Morning Call, February 12, 2019.

“Facing one of its lowest deficits in recent years, the Bethlehem Area School District is aiming to hold the line on taxes for property owners in the 2019-20 budget. . . . Because of the low deficit, board President Michael Faccinetto said he’d like to see what the budget would look like without a tax increase. ‘I’m not saying it’s a done deal, but we’re in the position where we can at least entertain it,’ he said.”

“As has been the case in recent years for school districts, charter schools and employee pension payments are top cost drivers. Bethlehem Area is looking at an almost $1 million increase in charter school tuition that would bring the district to paying almost $31 million.”

Jacqueline Palochko, “Lehigh Valley Academy Regional Charter plans a $45 million school building.” Morning Call, February 14, 2019.

“Wanting to get out of the business of paying rent, the Lehigh Valley Academy Regional Charter School is looking to build a 200,000-square-foot building at a cost of $45 million.”

LVA current rented space, 1560 Valley Center Pkwy

“At its Jan. 16 meeting, the board approved a $10 million sales agreement that could be for land. . . .  ‘The LVA Board of Trustees recognizes that owning our own facility is significantly more cost effective, fiscally responsible, and sustainable in the long term,’ the news release states. The charter school needs the permission of both the Bethlehem Area and Saucon Valley school boards to change locations because it is a regional charter school.”

“Most of LVA’s 1,700 students come from Bethlehem Area. The district is paying more than $12 million this year for 1,035 of its students to attend LVA. The news release says the new building would be for 1,950 students, suggesting LVA is looking to expand enrollment.”

“The charter school opened in 2002 and follows the International Baccalaureate curriculum, a globally focused program that requires students to take a series of demanding tests to receive an optional IB diploma.”

“LVA enrolls a diverse population; more than 30 percent of its students are Hispanic, 36 percent are white and 12 percent are black. Almost 50 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. The charter school has a 95 percent graduation rate, almost 10 percentage points above the state average.”

Jacqueline Palochko and Jon Harris, “Lehigh Valley Academy eyes Jaindl land for new charter school building.” Morning Call, February 15, 2019.

“Lehigh Valley Academy Regional Charter School is eyeing 31 acres of Jaindl-owned land in Northampton County for its proposed 200,000-square-foot school. The charter school would pay $10.9 million for the land at 5300 Jaindl Blvd. in Hanover Township, according to the seller’s agreement between the charter school and the estate of Frederick J. Jaindl. The land is near Route 512.”

LVA possible new building, 5300 Jaindl Blvd

“Smith, the charter school’s board of trustees president, said LVA wants to own its own building because it’s more fiscally responsible than renting. The charter school pays more than $3 million annually in rent, he said. LVA plans to take out a loan for the new school, Smith said.”

“The charter school needs the permission of both the Bethlehem Area and Saucon Valley school boards to change locations because it is a regional charter school. It serves grades kindergarten through 12th. LVA has not yet filed a formal request with Bethlehem Area for a move. Saucon Valley Superintendent Craig Butler declined to comment. If either school district does not approve the location change, the charter school can appeal to the state Charter School Appeal Board.”

“Most of LVA’s 1,700 students come from Bethlehem Area. The district is paying more than $12 million this year for 1,035 of its students to attend LVA.” [Plans are to increase enrollment to 1,950 students.]

Where do all the students go and why? (11)

(11th in a series on Education)

Gadfly still wrapping his wings around charter schools.

Approximately 2100 BASD students attend charter schools, about 13% of the total student population. Charter schools cost Bethlehem taxpayers 29 million in charter tuition this year, which is roughly 10% of the budget.

Where do they go?  And then the next question is why do they go?

They go to the following 12 charter schools, only 3 of which have Bethlehem addresses. 5 have Allentown addresses, and 1 each to Catasauqua, Fogelsville, Emmaus, and Easton.

Charter schools are about choice.

So why do they go? Gadfly wonders if there are any surveys that shed light on this question.

(Another interesting statistic would be what is the percentage of BASD students to the total enrollment in each of the charter schools.)

We have profiled in previous posts 2 of the 3 charter schools with Bethlehem addresses. Gadfly who has two granddaughter “performers” who went to a public school in Massachusetts that excelled in the Arts can understand the attraction of our Charter Arts. And to Gadfly the appeal of the Dual Language school is also quite understandable.

Here are the 12 charter schools in descending order of the 2100 BASD students attending. Let’s spend some time browsing through – especially the “top” schools – to try to sense what the draw is.

Almost 50% go to one school — what’s up with that?

Lehigh Valley Academy Charter School
1560 Valley Center Pkwy #200, Bethlehem, PA 18017

Executive Education Academy Charter School
555 Union Blvd, Allentown, PA 18109

Lehigh Valley Dual Language Charter School
675 E Broad St, Bethlehem, PA 18018

Lincoln Leadership Academy Charter School
1414 E Cedar St, Allentown, PA 18109

The Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts
321 E 3rd St, Bethlehem, PA 18015

The Arts Academy Charter School
1610 E Emmaus Avenue, Allentown, PA 18103

Innovative Arts Academy Charter School
330 Howertown Rd, Catasauqua, PA 18032

Arts Academy Elementary Charter School
601 Union St, Allentown, PA 18101

Easton Arts Academy Elementary Charter School
30 N 4th St, Easton, PA 18042

Seven Generations Charter School
154 Minor St, Emmaus, PA 18049

Circle of Seasons Charter School
8380 Mohr Ln, Fogelsville, PA 18051

2 Roberto Clemente CS
136 S 4th St # 1, Allentown, PA 18102

Like Gadfly, this is probably the first time realizing the local “universe” of charter schools. What are you thinking?

Charter schools and real estate taxes (10)

(10th in a series on Education)

Stephen C. Antalics Jr. of Bethlehem is a retired scientist and entrepreneur. He is also Gadfly #1.

Note from Stephen as present context for his 2015 article: The process of using real estate taxes to fund the state’s public school systems creates a difficulty for districts with a low real estate average, for these poorer districts must now share their meagre funds with the charter schools, thereby depriving already burdened students of higher qualified teachers and needed supplies like text books, etc. So, the real estate values also determine the quality of education. The plan below is a radical approach.

“Is it time for radical change in public education?” Morning Call, September 15, 2015.

“Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican and chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, is proposing legislation [this is 2015] that could put poorly performing school districts under state control.”

“Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat and minority chairman of the Education Committee, noted that the majority of the schools that fail are in poor urban areas. Poverty becomes the common denominator among poorly performing schools.”

“Many school districts derive a high proportion of school revenue from real estate taxes. It follows that those communities with high property values have necessary revenues to invest to make their district superior.”

“This is quite clearly supported by the fact that school districts in the most affluent communities are rated among the best in performance and those in poverty areas are among the lowest. Is it fair that intelligent children living in poverty-stricken districts be deprived of an education equal in quality afforded to children in affluent districts?”

“The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment is a standardized test administered to public schools to determine the quality of the education in all districts. Can such a standardized test work when the districts are far from standardized — i.e., standardized being equal opportunity afforded to each student? It appears that the PSSAs measure more learning opportunity rather than student ability.”

“One radical approach could be for the state to take over all school districts. Each district could receive 100 percent of necessary funds from state income and sales taxes. This would eliminate the need for personal school real estate taxes, thereby ending possible foreclosures on homes of poverty-level families or seniors on fixed incomes.”

“Clearly, the state’s system of public education, by allowing a class system founded on affluence, is not working. Is it time for a radical change? Nothing might be lost but there is much to gain — better educated children.”


Charter schools: data to help us think about comparisons with other districts (9)

(9th in a series on Education)

John Marquette is a retired librarian/archivist, author, historian, and a resident of Bethlehem. His current project is focused on the restoration of the interior of the Archibald Johnston Mansion in Housenick Park. 

Data from a Pennsylvania Department Education report
2018-2019 Building Data Report

Here’s an executive summary:

Bethlehem Area School District has 57.92 percent of its students enrolled in the Federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program. The program is a measure of area wealth/poverty some agencies and granting institutions use to apportion funds for educational need.

I have ranked BASD’s three tiers (elementary, middle, and high) by ascending percentage of participation so you see the degree of participation by each school’s catchment area. It’s a good indicator of household income.

Fun fact: Liberty and Freedom are about the same.

Allentown School District has 100 percent of its students enrolled in the program.

To the west of us (and note that Bethlehem is classified as a Northampton County school, entitling residents to NCC resident tuition):

  • Parkland School District, which is partly in the city of Allentown, has 24.59 percent enrolled in the program.
  • Salisbury School District, which abuts Fountain Hill/BASD to the east and Parkland to the west, has 41.17 percent in the program.
  • East Penn School District (Emmaus) has 25.71 percent in the program.
  • The wealth winner is Southern Lehigh School District, with 19.02 percent in the program.

To the question of charter schools: if the superintendents of each of the districts I cited answered the same questions as Dr. Roy (THANK YOU FOR YOUR PROMPTNESS, DR. ROY!!!), what differences would we see in terms of students leaving their districts for charters?

I am a Southern Lehigh graduate (1973) and am proud of the great public education I received. As a resident of Bethlehem, I’m proud of the effort the teachers and administrators make to turn out great graduates. I appreciate their dedication and understand they have challenges far different from what they may have found in classrooms 50 years ago.


Taxes: grin and bear ’em

(8th in a series on Education)

What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector?
The taxidermist takes only your skin.
Mark Twain

Gadfly loves to do his taxes early. Hates doing them. So best to get them out of the way.

Appointment with the tax guy Monday.

Which makes today a Tylenol-for-Tax-Relief day.

Gadfly grew up on Lichty’s “Grin and bear it” daily cartoons.

Sardonic. Cynical.

A wonderful tonic.

Comic relief.

I’m sure Lichty helped shape Gadfly’s sense of humor.

Taxes were a common theme.

Lichty 2

Taxes, best to just grin and bear ’em.

Lichty 1

Taxes. Nothing you can do about ’em. Just grin and bear it.

But we’re in the process of thinking about charter schools and taxes.

So Gadfly is curious today to know exactly what he’s been paying in taxes to the Bethlehem Area School District.

The records aren’t great. But here’s what he has.

2010: $1646
2015: $1984
2016: $2046
2017: $2085
2018: $2120

What’s your graph look like? It’s germane to our thinking about charter schools.


Dr. Roy responds on charter schools (7)

(7th in a series on Education)

High-five to Dr. Roy for immediately responding to Gadfly’s charter school questions  with this mini-tutorial. Let’s take some time to absorb and then discuss.

1) What is the cost per student – regular and special education – you used for charter school payments this year? (here and below, or for the last year you have figures)

Regular Ed per student = $12,099.34 — Special Education per student = $25,760.00.  Please note that the issue here is that the special education charter tuition is calculated on an AVERAGE of BASD’s special education costs — which include very involved, high-need students. Charter schools do not accept students with multiple physical handicaps or significant disabilities. Special Education students at charters tend to need limited supports for learning or speech therapy, for example. As a result, charter reap a windfall because the tuition they receive from BASD far exceeds their actual cost of educating the special education student. Note that on one of the slides attached titled Charter School Subsidy [see link below] we make the point that when the charter law was originally passed in 1997, it included a reimbursement from the state to district recognizing that district overhead costs remain when a student goes to a charter. In 2011, Gov. Corbett cut that subsidy, and it has never been reinstated. If the reimbursement were in place at the old rate of 25%-30%, BASD would receive $7 million per year in reimbursement. It is not an exaggeration to say that without charter, BASD would have had no reason to raise property taxes over the past number of years.

charter slides 19-20 for budget

2) How many students from BASD are attending charter schools this year?

2099, although this number fluctuates weekly by a few.

3) What percentage of BASD students are attending charter schools?

13%. Important to note that as one of the largest districts with a concentrated population, we have one of the largest charter populations in the state. In fact, roughly 75% of all charter students statewide come from only 20 school districts (out of 500). So the cost of charters is borne disproportionately by a handful of mostly urban districts.

4) How much of the BASD budget – dollar amount and percentage – is going to charter schools this year?

We expect to spend $29 million in charter tuition this year, which is roughly 10% of our budget. Please note that 14% – 15% of each homeowner’s property tax bill goes solely to paying for charter schools!!

5) What charter schools are BASD students attending this year? Both name and number.

headcount on oct 1 2018 – charter by grade

6) Is there a limit to the number of students that can attend charter schools? For instance, is the only limit the number of charter schools and their capacity? Theoretically, could charter schools drain the district of students?

Interesting question. If a charter school and the district agree to a limit on students, then, yes, there can be a limit. Unfortunately, a charter can reject a limit and go to the state’s charter appeals board and receive a generic charter to continue to operate. This happened recently with the LV Regional Academy Charter School refused to agree to a generous cap on students and appealed to the state board. Conversely, the LV Dual Language Charter agreed to a limit. Another angle on this is when Allentown approves a charter and puts limits on only the number of Allentown students. The charter school then recruits heavily in Bethlehem. So we pay the price and have absolutely no oversight authority for a school approved by Allentown.  Could charters drain the district? It won’t happen here. But in places like York and Chester Upland School District and to a degree Philadelphia that is what has happened — putting the district into a death spiral financially.

7) Is there anything else about this issue that you think we should know?

Interestingly, the vast majority of elementary school charter students return to the district for middle school and high school because charters cannot compete with us for the range of courses, music, arts and athletic programs we offer. Also interesting to note that the vast majority of students in charters started in charters in kindergarten. Most kids who start with us, stay with us — with very satisfied parents. PA has enabled two publicly funded education systems at great additional cost — our traditional public schools and the privately run but publicly financed charter schools. It’s an enormous waste of money. BASD estimates that if all 2,000 charter students returned to us, we would spend about $6 million in additional teacher salaries but SAVE $24 million per YEAR overall. We can easily absorb those students into our existing 22 schools. This is the cost of school choice the proponents of choice simply deny.