For those of us who live in areas where charter schools flourish, we've seen some variation of this story over and over again - charter school CEOs who enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the students and faculty. These schools
January 10, 2012

For those of us who live in areas where charter schools flourish, we've seen some variation of this story over and over again - charter school CEOs who enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the students and faculty. These schools are far too frequently vehicles for corruption:

A Monroe County charter school has violated the state charter school law by having "improper entanglements" with a church run by the school's founder, according to a preliminary report issued by the state auditor general's office.

The report, obtained by The Morning Call, says the Pocono Mountain Charter School in Tobyhanna also may have illegally diverted taxpayer money to adjacent Shawnee Tabernacle Church. It also may have improperly received $87,101 from the state in rental reimbursements for its building lease agreement with the church.

The report also says the charter school may have violated the state Ethics Act rule against conflict of interest in other dealings with the church, which is run by the Rev. Dennis Bloom.

[...] The attorney general's preliminary report comes as Pocono Mountain officials are assessing the Charter Appeals Board ruling.

Bethlehem attorney Ellen C. Schurdak, who represented the school district administration in the public revocation hearings, told The Morning Call: "My initial reaction to this preliminary report you've read from [shows it] vindicates the board's decision."

The school board's unanimous revocation vote was based on documents and testimony presented during public hearings that alleged:

• Bloom, acting in dual roles as president of the church and CEO of the charter school, directed the church's board of directors and the charter's board of trustees to enter into a 2007 lease agreement that obligated the charter school to build a 35,000-square-foot addition that would connect to Shawnee Tabernacle.

• The charter school's lease payments to the church grew by 124 percent to $920,000 between the 2005-06 school year and the end of construction in 2007

• Local and state taxpayers paid more than $900,000 for the addition's construction, which included a gym floor emblazoned with "SHAWNEE TABERNACLE," a parking lot, elevator and an outdoor electronic sign, all of which revert to church ownership once the lease expires.

• The building lease forbids the charter school from using facilities outside school hours. But the gym, stocked with $200,000 in equipment, is open for free to Tobyhanna Impact Athletic Center, a nonprofit recreation league founded in 2008 by Bloom's then-teenage daughter, Priscilla.

• Teachers earned $20,000 annually while Bloom, as charter CEO, was paid $120,000 plus bonuses; his wife, Gricel, the "first lady" of Shawnee Tabernacle, earned $76,000 and bonuses as assistant CEO; and their children were on the taxpayer-funded payroll, too, in 2007-08.

"We were dealing with public money," Schurdak said. "If the Bethlehem Area School District put in a gym floor and put 'St. Anne's' emblazoned on the floor, there would be outrage and outcry. That's what we are dealing with here."

The Charter Appeals Board overturned the revocation in a 5-2 vote. In issuing the majority opinion on Sept. 27, Tomalis said the charter school did not show "the best judgment" but there was not substantial evidence to show improper religious entanglement, and the gym floor letters and outdoor sign were not religious symbols.

[...] Bloom was a police officer with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey in 1995 when he and his wife founded Shawnee Tabernacle as a non-denominational Christian church at 16 Carriage Square in the Tobyhanna section of Coolbaugh Township. A year later, he and his wife filed for bankruptcy, according to federal court records.

In 2003, Bloom, who testified he has a criminal justice degree but no degrees in education or divinity, received school board approval to open a charter school. The district attached a condition that the charter's board of trustees "shall not consist of a majority of members who are also members of the Shawnee Tabernacle Church."

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