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Halt in charter applications a concern for operators

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Citing financial concerns, the School Reform Commission is not accepting applications for new charter schools at least until spring, causing complaints that the action is preventing eight proposed charter schools from receiving state-awarded planning grants.

In addition, charter proponents say that seven other “conditionally approved” schools are being stymied from moving towards planned September openings because they cannot enter into contracts, hire staff, or arrange for a building without a final go-ahead.

“Definitely the SRC has said it supports the choice movement, but that movement has been slowed to a halt in large part due to decisions they made, or refused to make,” said Lawrence Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School and president of the Pennsylvania Charter School Coalition.

The “conditionally approved” charters have told the SRC that they are in limbo. And, under new federal rules, the eight nascent schools that won planning grants – including one for Russian immigrants and another that would prepare students for construction jobs – cannot collect their money without completed charter applications.

Last month, SRC Chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn reiterated that while the SRC supports charter schools and likes those it “conditionally approved,” it wants to control their growth to fit with the academic and fiscal needs of the financially pressed District.

“We have to be strategic in how we add charter schools to our landscape,” she said. “We are making sure that we can afford them.”

Murky budget picture

The full picture of the 2009-10 budget is not yet clear, she said, adding that a decision on whether to give the seven full approval is likely by March.

But that may not be early enough for schools to open in September.

“We’re doing whatever we can that does not require us to sign a contract, enter into a lease, or obligate money,” said Mark Spector, an advisor to Arise Charter School, which targets foster children. The founders are poised to “move forward immediately when they remove our conditions,” he said, but they can’t hire a CEO, create marketing materials, or recruit students.

The other six “conditionally approved” charters include a second KIPP middle school, a Sankofa Freedom School, and one run by Eastern University and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

District Chief Business Officer Michael Masch said that the seven additional charter schools, with combined projected enrollments of 1,750 students the first year, would increase costs by $16 million initially and $43 million at full capacity of 4,620 students. While the state reimburses the District retroactively for some charter costs, “How much of these costs, if any, might be covered by increases in Pennsylvania’s charter school reimbursement aid is unknown at this time.”

Masch said that the total cost of the charters to the District is $320 million annually, with slightly more than one-third of that amount reimbursed by the state and another third or so offset by operational savings. He told the SRC on Nov. 12 that despite the growth in charters, the District’s net outlay has remained stable at about $105 million for several years.

Slow to downsize

Jones said he wasn’t sure about Masch’s numbers, and argued that the District has been reluctant to downsize more aggressively as more students flock to these independent but publicly funded schools. There are now more than 34,400 students in charters (including cyber-charters), or 17.5 percent of the city’s public school population.

The SRC took the unprecedented step this year of revoking two charters, for Renaissance and Germantown Settlement, due to fiscal irregularities and poor academic performance. Both charters, which remain open this school year, have filed appeals with the State Charter Appeals Board.

In addition, one of the mavens of the charter movement, Brien Gardiner, was brought down when District investigators and The Inquirer uncovered a web of inappropriate financial dealings between two schools he founded and companies he created to provide services.

Philadelphia Academy, which was not failing academically, had its charter renewed on condition that it restructure its board and leadership and sever ties with Gardiner. Northwood Academy, another school he founded, also broke ties with him.

The SRC convened a task force in the fall to study District-charter interaction and made 11 recommendations to improve relations. But it stopped short of proposing that charters deal with an independent entity rather than a District office, as many charter operators wanted.

Instead, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she would appoint a cabinet-level official to advocate for their concerns and on Nov. 19 named former Mastery Charter Chief Operating Officer Benjamin Rayer as associate superintendent for charter schools.

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