Tuesday, February 3, 2009

DC Cyber School in the News

Like what I mention in my post here, and it finally made the Philly News. I can't really say anything much other than what I already posted with above link. Below is what I got from philly news.

Devon charter school sues parents

By Martha Woodall

Inquirer Staff Writer
Several parents at the Agora Cyber Charter School in Devon who asked questions about the school's finances have been sued by the founder and her management company.

Dorothy June Brown contends that the parents and the Agora Parent Organization defamed her and Cynwyd Group L.L.C. in complaints sent to the state Department of Education and in e-mails circulated to other parents at the statewide cyber school.

The parents say they were just trying to get answers about the relationship between Cynwyd Group and Agora. The cyber school rents its headquarters from Cynwyd under a nine-year lease and pays the firm a management fee of at least 4 percent, according to a services agreement. Brown owns Cynwyd and serves as its senior consultant to Agora, according to school and state records.

The civil suit Brown filed in Montgomery County Court on Jan. 21 alleges that the parents made misleading statements "that give the clear but false impression that Dr. Brown is corrupt, incompetent and possibly criminal."

The suit also says the parents' association "sought to interfere with Cynwyd's contractual relationship with Agora by spreading untruths about Dr. Brown and by implying that she had improperly used public funds."

Brown and Cynwyd are seeking more than $150,000 in damages for libel, slander and civil conspiracy.

"The allegations are false," Gladys Stefany of Milton, Pike County, said in an e-mail yesterday. She said she learned about the suit last Tuesday when she was served with papers.
'Civil conspiracy'
"When did asking for information that is or should be public information become 'civil conspiracy?' " asked Stefany, who has a 15-year-old daughter enrolled in Agora and is president of the parents' organization.

"It is sad that it has come to this, but I'm happy we'll finally have the opportunity to air our case in the open and get answers to our questions."

Stefany said the questions did not involve the school's academic program. She said she was more than satisfied with the instruction her special-needs daughter has received.

News of the suit left several lawyers and education officials scratching their heads.

"I haven't heard of a case of this sort in recent memory," Len Reiser, co-director of the Education Law Center in Center City, said yesterday.

Lawyers from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association agreed.
SLAPP suit?
Angelique Smith of Aston and her husband, Ira, are among the six parents named in the complaint. She said she believed the case amounted to what is known as a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" (SLAPP) and was meant to intimidate and silence critics.

"This is really about freedom of speech and freedom of association," Smith said. "This is akin to going to a regular public school and telling the PTA to get out."

Brown referred all questions about the suit to her attorney, Wendy Beetlestone. Beetlestone said it was a defamation case and not a SLAPP suit.

"In any kind of public discussion, you have to make sure that what you say is true and doesn't bring down the reputation of the person you're talking about," Beetlestone said.

She said parents had failed to respond to requests to stop spreading information that she said defamed Brown.

"June Brown is a highly respected and innovative educator and has been for many years," Beetlestone said. "When the debate turns to making false statements and doing everything they can to bring her down, she is left with no other option. That's what this lawsuit is about."

Brown is the founder of three traditional charter schools in Philadelphia. In 2005, she and Brien N. Gardiner, founder of the Philadelphia Academy Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia, co-founded Agora to provide online home instruction to students across the state.

The school Web site listed Gardiner as a co-founder, but his name was removed in May after he became the subject of a federal criminal investigation at Philadelphia Academy and was fired from his consulting position at the charter.

The lawsuit against the parents claims Gardiner "had no role in founding Agora and his name does not appear in Agora's application for a charter or in subsequent organizational documents."

Brown's lawsuit also charges that Agora parents tried to imply that she "was guilty of some financial wrongdoing on the basis of her association with Gardiner."

Records show that Brown and Gardiner did business together. In 2005, they established Cynwyd Group as an educational management company, state records show.

In November 2007, the company paid $1.9 million to buy a property at 60 Chestnut Ave., Tredyffrin, that houses the Agora headquarters. The relationship between Gardiner and Brown was severed in May 2008.

Gardiner and others were removed from Philadelphia Academy in May. An internal investigation alleged in July that Gardiner and Kevin O'Shea, the academy's former chief executive officer, defrauded the 1,200-student school and misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal gain. Their alleged practices are part of the ongoing federal investigation.

Brown came under scrutiny from the Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System in the spring for collecting salaries as CEO of two of her other charter schools. She stepped down from both positions after the state legislature changed the law in July to bar charter administrators from collecting more than one salary and from earning money from any entity that does business with charters.

Parents said they had repeatedly asked Agora's board of trustees for information about the relationship between Agora and Cynwyd. They said they also tried to obtain the information from Brown, who is listed as the school's open-records officer.

When their questions went unanswered, the parents filed complaints with the Department of Education, which has oversight of the 11 cyber charter schools.

In their complaints, the parents said they were concerned that the school was violating the terms of its charter by hiring an outside management company when the charter said Agora would not use a management firm.

Agora enrolls more than 4,000 students from across Pennsylvania, the suit says.

The charter's most recent federal tax filing shows it received nearly $8.1 million in taxpayer money in 2006-07, when 1,500 students were enrolled.

Under the state funding formula, students' home districts pay varying amounts for them to attend Agora. In the current school year, for example, Philadelphia pays $8,088 per student in regular education; Jenkintown pays $15,174.

And here is what the PDE answer about the whole thing.

"GALVESTON — It appeared late Friday that the district was backing
down from its threat to sue a parent for defamation.

In a statement issued late Friday afternoon, Superintendent Lynne
Cleveland recommended that the district drop all legal action against
a Web site it has accused of defamation."

The battle between the district and Tetley drew national attention
last week when a link to the story was posted on The Drudge Report, a
Web site that has links to national and international stories. The
number of hits on www.gisdwatch.com jumped from 300 a day to more
than 6,000. Bloggers nationwide tuned in to the fight.

1 comment:

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