What Would Ronnie Say About Montco Republicans Now?

A generation ago, Ronald Reagan decreed Montgomery County one of the three best-run Republican strongholds in the entire country. Now, with the party decimated by a half-dozen years of feuding among GOP heavyweights, a very rich, mysterious newcomer has entered the void to take Montco politics to an even darker place

These questions were at the center of a recent conflict concerning charter schools and secrecy. Gureghian has long declined to answer questions about his financial dealings, even when his deals involve taxpayer money. In 1992, a reporter from the Inquirer called Gureghian to ask him about a modest three-story building he owned in Chester County, for which he was charging the county government $276,000 a year in rent and operating costs. Gureghian said, “My view is that as a private businessman, my financial information is private. … I’m not accountable to anybody.” Gureghian’s penchant for secrecy came up once again in a recent investigation by The Notebook, a nonprofit newspaper covering public education in Philadelphia. Notebook’s Benjamin Herold and Dale Mezzacappa discovered that a testing company working for the state had found statistical irregularities in the standardized test scores of 89 schools across Pennsylvania. Gureghian’s school, Chester Community- Charter School, had been flagged for aberrations 13 times. For example, Gureghian’s eighth-graders improved their math scores from 22.1 percent “proficient” to 65.4 percent proficient in just one year—“gains that the report deemed improbable,” according to The Notebook. There were also “unusual patterns of erasures” on student tests at CCCS, in which wrong answers were changed to right answers. When Notebook reporters sent the school some questions, guess what happened? That’s right: The paper received a “notice to cease and desist all defamatory communications concerning alleged PSSA ‘cheating’ at CCCS.” The school’s attorney added, “The report repeatedly stresses that there is absolutely no proof of ‘cheating.’” The Notebook ran the story.

In June, Vahan Gureghian went to Harrisburg, where the Republican-led legislature- was forging a controversial charter school bill, one of a few concerning- the operations of state charter schools. According to multiple sources, Gureghian had an agenda. What he wanted, apparently-, was to create more secrecy.

The way Gureghian’s charter school in Chester works, the school itself is public. It receives taxpayer money. But a private, for-profit company—Gureghian’s Charter School Management Inc.—manages the school’s finances. It owns the buildings, leases them to the school, pays the teachers and, according to a 2008 report by the Inquirer, has collected $60.6 million in public funds since the school was started in 1999. Gureghian wanted to make sure the bill would exempt charter-school management organizations like CSMI from state sunshine laws. According to Republican State Representative Mike Vereb, who considers himself a friend of Gureghian, “The language that Vahan was looking to do had to do with vendors of a school … contractors.” The effect of such language would be to hide details of the financial operations of charter schools from public scrutiny. Presumably, this would make it harder for Gureghian’s competitors to copy his financial “recipe.”

That language appeared in an early draft of the bill. But then something happened. A group of charter-school operators- got wind of it, and they were “incredibly incensed,” says one longtime political observer. “Because it strikes at the heart of what charter schools are all about.” The point of the charter-school movement is to share what works in education. Even Governor Corbett, the beneficiary of $330,000 in Gureghian funds, acknowledged this when he visited Gureghian’s charter school in April. “What you’re doing here needs to be reported to all the people of Pennsylvania, so they can understand what can be accomplished if there’s a vision,” Corbett said. But how can you report what works if the recipe of each school is secret? “How are you going to make schools better? What’s the point?” the observer asks.

Going to bat against Gureghian, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools fought, successfully, to turn the secrecy clause back into a sunshine clause. The language was never voted on or formally debated, and the charter-school proposals were tabled until the fall session. So while the coalition, which declined to comment for this story, won this round, there will certainly be another.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN Montgomery County, everything old is new again. The year 2011 looks a lot like 2007. Another campaign for county commissioner. Another political shotgun marriage between a lawman and a person the lawman has distrusted in the past.

“Jenny Brown and I got off to a bad start because she was foisted upon me without my consent,” Bruce Castor tells me one recent afternoon, over coffee at Shula’s Steak House in West Conshohocken. “Once I got over the hump, I’m delighted with her as a candidate.” (Brown says, “He calls me his political spouse, and that’s pretty much what it is. We are teammates.”)

Castor is wearing a gray hunting shirt, a glow-in-the-dark diver’s watch, and his grandfather’s Masonic ring. “A lot of my philosophy in life is guided by the Masons,” he says. “You heard the idea of ‘operating on a square deal’?”

I ask him about his continuing fund–raising troubles: As of May 2nd, the Castor campaign only had about $4,700 in the bank, and the joint Brown/Castor fund contained $9,500. Even when you added in the nearly $150,000 in Jenny Brown’s account, the total came to just $164,000. (As bizarre as this disparity seems, it’s accurate. Brown is raising almost 100 percent of the money for the campaign.) This puts the Republicans at a massive disadvantage. Their Democratic opponents are Josh Shapiro—a young, energetic state representative whom even many of his Republican colleagues like and respect—and -Leslie Richards, a civil engineer. Shapiro is a champion fund-raiser. Between him and Richards, the Democrats are sitting on $1.2 million in cash, some portion of it from traditional Republican donors with a nose to sniff out a winner.

Castor says he isn’t worried. “We are going to operate our campaign the way I would a trial,” he says. “We’re going to present our facts and our evidence.” Perhaps another reason is that according to several sources, Gureghian has promised to either raise or donate $2 million for the Brown/Castor campaign. “He didn’t say that to me,” says Castor, smiling. “I hope that’s true.”

But the Feud That Ate the Party isn’t something that money can fix. While the people at the top whack each other with folding chairs, the party is rotting from below. At this point, Montco Republicans have descended a long way from Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” In a county that not so long ago could boast of a political organization at its very best, they now seem to be a microcosm of our politics at their very worst.
One afternoon, I ask Jim Matthews if there’s any chance for a quick end to the feud. He thinks for a second. Then he tells me that Bob Asher and Bruce Castor might consider forgiving each other, five years after one or the other is dead. By that time, everyone will certainly know who Vahan H. Gureghian is