Pa. warns Agora Cyber: Provide accurate data – or else
May 23, 2016
Updated: MAY 19, 2016 — 1:08 AM EDT
by Martha Woodall, Staff Writer
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has delivered a stark warning to Agora Cyber Charter School, the state’s second-largest online charter, which has had troubles throughout this academic year.
A top department official told the school it must provide accurate data on student testing and attendance by May 27, or the department “will take appropriate actions against the school.”
Agora, based in King of Prussia, with 8,500 students statewide, has been trying to obtain a five-year renewal of its operating agreement from the department since October 2014.
According to a letter obtained by the Inquirer, David Volkman, the department’s executive deputy secretary, notified Agora’s CEO on Monday of “very serious data quality issues.”
The data problems, Volkman wrote, “have far-reaching implications and appear to be another symptom of Agora’s ongoing operational issues.”
Nicole Reigleman, a spokeswoman for the department, confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the department had sent the letter to Agora “outlining issues with the accuracy and integrity of its data.”
She said the department “will consider many factors when determining the status of Agora’s charter renewal.”
Joann Gigliotti, an Agora spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the school had received an electronic copy of the letter Monday.
“We are currently working on the data requested,” she said in an email. “We feel confident that we will be able to deliver what [the department] is requesting by their deadline.”
Gigliotti noted that Agora’s application for a new charter was submitted 17 months ago. “We do not believe [the department’s] request is related to the renewal,” she said.
She also blamed the data problems on incomplete demographic information that was not in the format the department needed.
“As such, we are gathering additional information from our families, who have been very responsive to our requests,” Gigliotti said.
In his letter, Volkman said his department had been troubled by continuing problems at Agora since a meeting with the school’s officials in late February.
Volkman said the data issues affect Agora’s ability to meet state and federal reporting requirements, which could jeopardize the school’s federal funding. He said problems with Agora’s data also interfere with the department’s ability to meet its obligations.
Volkman said the problems with recording attendance raise concerns about whether Agora is submitting accurate bills to school districts and is billing for students who are no longer enrolled, and whether students are receiving the education to which they are entitled.
He said the department was aware that Agora had contracted with the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit for help in resolving attendance and billing discrepancies. “The data issues, however, are deep, pervasive, and entrenched in the school’s operations,” Volkman said.
He ordered the school to provide results of state testing and 11th-grade academic data, and to review prior data it had sent to the department for “accuracy and integrity.”
The cyber school has been beset with controversy this academic year.
Since last August, Agora has been led by a series of top administrators and has experienced turnover on its board.
In early February, Agora laid off scores of staffers, blaming its financial problems on the lack of a state budget at that time.
Agora’s board initially refused to say how many staffers lost their jobs. But in a Feb. 29 letter to parents and staff, Agora said 136 jobs were eliminated for a savings of $4.5 million.
Last week, Agora’s teachers voted, 312-46, to be represented by a new local affiliate of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
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