SHENANGO TOWNSHIP (KDKA) — The proposed sale of the former New Castle Youth Development Center has raised alarms in Shenango Township, Lawrence County.
Little is known about the highest bidder, HIRA Educational Services, and that’s the problem. Townspeople are suspicious.
“I would hope the governor would say this is all null and void. We’re going to open this up to bidding again,” said Shirley Sallmen, a resident and critic of the state’s bidding process.
Now, three state lawmakers – Sen. Elder Vogel, Rep. Chris Sainato and Rep. Aaron Bernstine – are asking the same. They have sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf asking him to void the sale.
HIRA is a consultant group and their stated mission is to help Muslim schools in the U.S.
While some on social media have raised ethnic distrust and used racial epithets, the lawmakers have focused on the company’s lack of credentials and financial wherewithal.
The company bid $400,000 to purchase the 143-acre site with 13 buildings, but KDKA’s research finds that the company claims only one employee in an apartment in Newark, New Jersey, and has not reported income of more than $50,000 in each of the past three years.
In addition, the state of New Jersey has revoked HIRA’s non-profit status for failing to submit required financial reports for two consecutive years. KDKA’s Andy Sheehan called the company phone number, but got only answer machine. And no one from HIRA returned the calls.
On Thursday, the Shenango Township supervisors will be holding the monthly meeting and a large crowd is expected.
Lawrence County’s state legislators are scrambling to find information about the New Jersey company that is purchasing the former Youth Development Center property in Shenango Township.
The DGS is finalizing the bid and completing the sale of the property. The process is expected to take several months. During this time, the bid will be reviewed by the state’s general counsel and the attorney general’s office.
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine was not available for comment Monday but promised to speak on the matter later this week.
The state-owned property has been idle since the YDC closed in 2013. Over the years, the asking price dropped from $4 million to $300,000. Prior attempts by the state to sell the property drew no bidders.
On its website, Hira describes itself as a consulting firm for Islamic schools. Two employees are listed on the website. President and CEO Muhammad Asif, also listed by the name Asif Kunwar. The vice-president is listed as Abdul Basit. The site says the company has adjunct staff members throughout the United States.
Although Hira submitted the highest bid, Muhammad Asif Kunwar submitted an individual bid of $300,000 for the YDC, the third and lowest bid of the three submitted. A state official said last week Kunwar did not sign the Hira bid, only his individual bid. The middle bid for $305,000, was submitted by Sumner McDaniel.
A check of Hira’s website shows that many of the links lead nowhere. An invitation to sign up for a newsletter from the company is a dead link, as are supposed links to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Misspellings abound on the website as well as grammatical errors and awkward wordings. No one from the school has responded to repeated attempts at telephone contact, although a woman answered one of the calls and promised to relay the request for a callback. Other calls went to voicemail.
In addition, a reverse phone lookup of the phone number listed on the website resulted in the name of another man — not listed on the school’s website. Attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful. A 501c3 lookup website also listed yet another man as a contact for the business and listed a New Jersey apartment as the address.
Tensions are running so high that Thursday, people were wanded with a metal detector before being allowed into a meeting of the Shenango Township supervisors.
So many people showed up that the fire department put a safety limit on how many people were allowed inside the building. The rest sat on chairs outside.
Township supervisors started out by stressing they had nothing to do with the sale of the property. They said the state of Pennsylvania owns the YDC property, decided the way the property would be sold and accepted the bids on the property.