Pennsylvania Budget Woes Hit Cyber Charter School

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Dozens of teachers and other staff members have been laid off from Agora, the second-largest cyber charter school in Pennsylvania, which currently enrolls 8,500 students across the state.

While school officials did not release the total number of employees who have been laid off, they say the layoffs occurred because of the ongoing situation with Governor Tom Wolf and the state budget impasse.

Current legislation requires districts to give a percentage of their per-student allotment for each student enrolled in a charter school.  However, with state funding not reaching individual districts, many have chosen to reduce or eliminate the amount given to charter schools, forcing charters to make cuts to their resources or shut down all together, writes Mary Steffey for PennLive.

“The Commonwealth’s failure to pass a budget necessitated that Agora make a substantial number of layoffs to survive,” Agora said in a statement issued Monday night.

According to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, cyber schools are not required under law to inform the department of layoffs or furloughs.

Employees at the school, both current and those subject to layoffs, believe the total to be over 100 and as many as 150, which could be around 15% of the workforce. They say there was no hint that the decision was coming; only two months ago Agora told staff members they had the resources to remain in business without needing to lay off staff.

“We have no plans to cut or furlough staff due to the lack of funds we are currently receiving,” Mary Steffey, chair of the Agora board, wrote Dec. 18 in an email to all 649 staff members. “Please do not fear for your position here at Agora.”

The cutbacks include the closing of Agora’s Learning Resource Center in East Falls.  Staff members there included learning-support coaches who worked on an individual level with struggling students.

Many are left wondering why the school was left in such a dire financial predicament when revenues were reported at $122.7 million with a $13.4 million fund balance, reports Martha Woodall for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Sara Atkins, a mother in Wynnewood who has four special-needs children enrolled at Agora, said almost every kindergarten teacher was laid off, along with many of the family coaches.  The largest cuts were seen in social studies, science, physical education, arts, music, and high school elective classes.

According to a statement released from Agora, the decision came as a last resort, adding that a budget framework appeared to be in place in December that suggested that both public schools and charter schools would be receiving funding.  While the school had a line of credit at that time, they said the temporary funds did not last.  When the budget discussions fell apart, their school began to unravel.

The Agora board approved a restructuring plan at a special meeting late last week.