Posted by Real-Time News.

The Allentown School Board dropped its opposition to a new charter school in an Atiyeh owned building and inked lease for an Atiyeh property.

Allentown School Board members knew developer Abe Atiyeh had promised not to open any new charter schools in the district the night they voted to lease an Atiyeh building and dropped their opposition to a new charter school.

The district acknowledged the deal in a statement issued Tuesday, just hours after the state’s auditor general indicated he wants to review the district’s charter school approval process and its real estate lease arrangements. 

On Jan. 29, the school board approved a five-year lease for its new Building 21 Allentown high school with one of Atiyeh’s companies, Basin Street Development.

The board also voted to approve the Arts Academy Elementary Charter School, a school they had twice-rejected, in an Atiyeh-owned building.


RELATED: Allentown school board approves lease for new school


Board members were aware that Atiyeh had pledged to not develop his properties into charter schools or support future charter school applications in the district, according to the district statement. Atiyeh also offered an advertising donation for Building 21 in his letter.

Allentown is sending millions of dollars to charter schools each year.

“This understanding saved the district tens of millions of dollars while securing an excellent facility for the district’s new innovative high school,” the district said in its statement.

Neither the pledge nor the existence of the letter were disclosed during the Jan. 29 meeting, raising potential Sunshine Act Law violations.

“Mr. Atiyeh’s letter was not a secret; rather it was shared and discussed with the school board prior to any voting,” the district said in a statement.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in light of these developments his upcoming scheduled audit of the district will include the reviews of the charter school approval process and lease arrangements.

“Recent media accounts allege that Allentown School District may have violated the state Sunshine Act by not publicly disclosing what could be construed as a quid pro quo arrangement (with a developer),” DePasquale said in a news release.

If the allegations are true, “it does not pass the sniff test,” the auditor said.

“The public has a right to know about any school district business agreements and the school district members had a legal obligation to vote on such matters in a public meeting,” DePasquale said.

District Solicitor John Freund said in a statement he is disappointed DePasquale would imply there’s been a Sunshine violation without an investigation or knowledge of the facts. 

“We do not see a violation of the Sunshine Law,” Freund said. “In fact, we do not even see a Sunshine Law issue. The school board made no promises to Mr. Atiyeh except what is contained in the lease which was adopted at a regular public meeting.”

Freund hopes that DePasquale notes how much money Allentown taxpayers will save if Atiyeh sticks to his pledge.

The school board argues it dropped its opposition to Arts Academy because the charter was appealing the district’s rejection, and Freund had advised the district the school would most likely win.

The board approved the charter application by a 7-2 vote with board members David Zimmerman and Elizabeth Martinez voting no.


RELATED: Allentown approves twice rejected charter school application


“The district has rejected other charter school applications which were reversed on appeal, costing the district both staff time in the appeal process and legal fees,” the statement reads.

Atiyeh and the board had clashed over the Arts Academy Charter School. Atiyeh criticized school board President Robert Smith Jr. last year for not being impartial in his review of the application. Smith posted a comment on his Facebook page asking residents to submit letters in opposition to the charter.

And when the school district investigated a spike in enrollments, officials learned Atiyeh had hired professional consultants that earned a fee for every student they enrolled.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at ssatullo@lehighvalleylive.com.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo. Find lehighvalleylive.com on Facebook.