New Castle News

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August 28, 2013

Our Opinion: Federal charges show need for better oversight

NEW CASTLE — The federal charges against Nicholas Trombetta are nothing less than breathtaking.

Trombetta, the founder of The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, based in Midland, stands accused of basically attaching a financial siphon to the educational program and sucking out $8 million for his personal use.

In a press conference last week, federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh outlined an alleged scheme in which Trombetta created companies that provided services to PA Cyber, while he reaped the financial rewards.

Authorities claim he used the money to purchase a condominium for himself, houses for his mother and girlfriend and an airplane, along with other odds and ends. The case now will proceed to trial and Trombetta will have the opportunity to defend himself, which should prove interesting.

In presenting details of the case to the press, U.S. Attorney David Hickton took pains to stress his department’s investigation wasn’t an attack on cyber or charter schools. Rather, it was aimed at an individual who allegedly took advantage of the system.

Naturally, it is not Hickton’s role to assess the merits of education methods. But it is every citizen’s duty to demand solutions when problems arise. And the charges against Trombetta amount to one more claim of taxpayers being taken to the cleaners by officials abusing their positions.

Unfortunately, that’s nothing new.

And while Hickton may not be interested in questioning the operations of cyber schools in Pennsylvania, we are.

In some circles, advocacy for these institutions is touted as a means of encouraging competition and excellence in education. Perhaps that’s true. But data to date has failed to identify any widespread educational gains tied to charter schools in the commonwealth. We’re still waiting for the excellence.

But more to the point, the case against Trombetta highlights two flaws in Pennsylvania’s handling of these schools: A lack of financial oversight by the commonwealth over these programs and what amounts to an excess of money being turned over to these programs.

While cyber schools essentially receive the same amount of state funding per student as regular schools, they don’t have the same overhead because they don’t have the same buildings and related facilities. This opens the door to the sort of financial schemes federal authorities say Trombetta perpetrated.

Although it may have been elaborate, the system outlined by prosecutors amounted to a money laundering operation with the cyber school.

And although the integrity of individuals in positions of authority serves as a crucial factor in the handling of public funds, a prudent program would come with appropriate oversight, along with checks and balances, to prevent the types of abuses alleged in the Trombetta case.

Pennsylvania does not have that now. But the federal charges should make it happen.

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