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Bethlehem council backs state grant for charter school despite educators' misgivings

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Jun 18 2013 10:36:36 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 19 2013 06:08:05 AM CDT
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Opponents of a $3 million state grant for a new charter school in Bethlehem came up short Tuesday night in an effort to have city council back off in helping the school get the money.

Despite strong pleas from Bethlehem Area School Board president Michael Faccinetto and Bethlehem Education Association president Jolene Vitalos, city council voted 5-2 to allow Mayor John Callahan to help the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts apply for funds from the state's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Grant Program.

Council president Eric Evans and council member J. William Reynolds cast the no votes.

The school intends to relocate to 321 East 3rd Street for the 2014-2015 school year, after operating in leased space at 675 East Broad St. since 2003. Ground was broken for a new, three-story, $27 million building 11 days ago.

Faccinetto, speaking for the school board, said that while the Charter High School for the Arts "has every right to expand," giving the school $3 million from a state program designed to spur redevelopment "is not fair to [the school district] and an insult to public education. ... There will be no new tax revenue and no new job creation."

Vitalos made similar points, noting that even though the charter school is being built in a Tax Increment Financing zone, "the land will never be available for tax purposes." And, she asked, "what economic development is being created?"

She also noted that while state grant money is available for a charter school, the Corbett administration has a moratorium on public school construction projects. 

Council members David DiGiacinto, Michael Recchiuti and Robert Donchez were not unsympathetic to what Faccinetto and Vitalos had to say.

But DiGiacinto said if the city did not act as the "pass through" agency for the grant, the county or redevelopment authority would, while Recchiuti and  Donchez said the school could help other businesses along 3rd Street.

"This parcel has been vacant for 15 years, and SteelStacks is kind of on an island,"  Recchiuti said. "The school helps bridge the gap that's there between SteelStacks and the main business district.

Council member Karen Dolan was the most passionate in her support of helping the charter school get the grant, and she forcefully refuted accusations that the $3 million that charter school would be getting from the state is coming at the expense of projects such as the proposed Nitschmann Middle School renovation.

"They don't pull from the same source of funding," she declared. "If we want to get at Governor Corbett, let's do it directly, not by stopping a good development. ... You don't hold up a grant from passing through for philosophical reasons."

Dolan also had some harsh words for Faccinetto and Vitalos. "This is [city council's] decision to make. ... To send a message a message on behalf of the teachers is a very bad way to go. ... It's not our job."

Charter school director Diane LaBelle told council that helping the school to expand "is the right thing to do," while project architect Christine Ussler predicted, "In the long run, more tax dollars will be coming from the South Side."