ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Thursday night's Allentown School District Board of Directors' meeting had as much drama as a summer blockbuster movie.
It featured votes on two proposed charter schools, the election of a new board member and a vote on a proposed 2014-2015 school budget before a packed and jammed crowd at the district's administration building.
The evening's marquee vote featured the controversial Arts Academy Elementary Charter School, which the board shot down in a 7-2 vote.
Comments made prior to the vote and events in the previous weeks and month, proved to ramp up the intrigue around the rejection.
Board President Robert Smith had previously indicated the school was engaging in unethical conduct by hiring a political lobbyist to inflate enrollment figures to show the board it had increased community backing after getting turned down by the board last November.
That led to sharp criticism by Smith of developer Abraham Atiyeh, the owner of the building, located at the site of the former Allentown Racquetball Club at 601 Union St., where the charter school hoped to operate.
Thomas Lubben, the charter's founder, did his best to frame the issue as one of justice and educating children.
"It's not about me," he said to directors Thursday night. "It's not about Bob Smith and it's not about Abe Atiyeh. It's about school choice for more than 600 excited families who are working through the process of enrollment."
Those families are key as charter schools are required to show community support as a criteria for receiving school board approval.
If the vote wasn't about Lubben, Smith or Atiyeh, the Arts Academy wanted to make sure Smith was stripped of a vote on the matter if their efforts at persuasion came up short.
Attorney Christie Schlottman, representing the Arts Academy, asked that Smith recuse himself from the vote based on comments he wrote about the school on his own Facebook page.
Smith wasn't impressed and refused to recuse himself from the vote and said the conduct of the Arts Academy was disgraceful, saying the "board was bribed" in an effort to secure board approval.
The second charter school vote went much better for the applicant, Executive Education Academy School, which the board approved 9-0.
"This board does pass charter schools," Smith said to no one in particular after the vote.
Indeed. The charter school it passed is proposed for the former Agere Systems building and promises to instill discipline to lower drop out rates, while promising to produce leaders who are ready to contribute to the region's business community.
In other business Thursday night, the board voted 8-0 to appoint Elizabeth Martinez as a director.
Martinez will fill out the term of departed director Joanne Bauer, who quit last month because she was moving out of the district. The term runs through December 2015.
Martinez was cast into yet another major vote Thursday night - that of the proposed budget.
If the vote on the charter schools proved dramatic, the vote on the budget proved downright weird, leaving the majority of teachers and audience members in the crowd scratching their heads at what the board had done.
The vote was whether or not to eliminate 74 teaching positions and four administrator posts.
After failing to reach an agreement on amendments that would have saved jobs, the directors voted 6-3 to turn down all furloughs.
Audience members, dozens of whom were watching the proceeding on a video screen out in the foyer area of the administration building, questioned what the school board had done.
The district's solicitor, John Freund, reminded the board they only had until June 1st to approve any furloughs.
Faced with the prospect of having no furloughs or approving the furloughs on the table Thursday night, the board reconsidered and changed their minds, approving all the proposed cuts made by Superintendent C. Russell Mayo, save for that of an athletic director.
Of course, that could change next month, as the final budget vote is expected June 26th.
The public can view the proposed budget on May 27 by requesting a copy at the office of the district's chief financial officer at 31 S. Penn Street in Allentown.
Allentown, PA 18102
- Lehigh Valley 69 News