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Charter troubles surface; District tightens scrutiny

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

With charter schools now enrolling more than 15 percent of the public school population in the city, the School District has taken new steps to enforce academic and fiscal accountability, contributing to the exposure of serious problems at a number of these independently-operated schools.

The School Reform Commission (SRC) revised its policy in December, tightening oversight of charter schools while at the same time creating a task force made up primarily of charter operators and advocates to recommend how the District and charters could better co-exist.

In the wake of the stricter policy, the SRC took a preliminary vote in April to shut down two charter schools – Renaissance in Mount Airy and Germantown Settlement in Germantown, both of which had been renewed once before.

In a decade, the District has never forced a charter to close, although one shut down on its own after revelations of financial wrongdoing. A final decision on the two schools by the SRC is expected in October but can be challenged through a state appeals process. The schools remain open this academic year.

A third charter, Philadelphia Academy, was engulfed in scandal amid revelations in The Inquirer that its founder and CEO were paying themselves salaries higher than paid to the District CEO, hiring family members, and otherwise misusing public funds. Philadelphia Academy, a 1,000-student school in the Northeast, was allowed to stay open only after its board was reconstituted and founder Brien Gardiner and CEO Kevin O’Shea were forced out.

Among the conditions for staying open was a requirement that it document its admissions process. Philadelphia Academy is more than 95 percent White in a District that is less than 15 percent White.

The Inquirer also revealed that June Brown, founder of Laboratory, Ad Prima, and Planet Abacus charter schools, was drawing full-time salaries from all three at once.

The scandals sparked a tightening of the state ethics law to ban charter employees and board members from earning money from more than one charter or from entities doing business with the charter. The General Assembly also passed a law removing caps on charter enrollment, but it is still unclear whether that provision applies to Philadelphia, which is exempted from parts of the charter law due to its status as a “distressed” district.

Over the summer, the SRC held hearings, required after a non-renewal vote, at which Renaissance and Germantown Settlement, both middle schools, presented their cases for staying open. Each school has a history of financial difficulties and low student achievement.

Renaissance, which in addition to academic problems had failed to file required federal tax forms and complete annual audits, said that it had recently hired a new principal and was turning itself around. Germantown Settlement, which has low test scores, too few certified teachers, and high staff turnover, also said that the school was poised for improvement.

The District had accumulated piles of evidence that were presented in the triallike proceedings, which were presided over by an outside attorney, Allison S. Peterson.

The president of Germantown Settlement, Emanuel V. Freeman, admitted in questioning from District lawyer Miles Shore that he had once lent some of the charter’s funds to other programs in the parent social services agency, in violation of the law.The school ran operating deficits in 2005 and 2007.

With two new charters opening this fall, bringing the city’s total to 63, the SRC has put a moratorium on future openings depending on the availability of funds, although seven new schools have received conditional approvals for 2009.

The task force, led by SRC member James Gallagher, a charter advocate, explored the often-sticky relationship between the District and charters. It made several recommendations for improvement, including an expansion of the charter school office to include people who had founded or operated charter schools.

As part of her overall administrative shakeup, new Superintendent Arlene Ackerman appointed Tim Field, deputy in charge of innovation and new initiatives, to oversee the charter school office. Ackerman has indicated that she favored expansion of the office to improve oversight, but hasn’t addressed whether she plans to staff it with people who had worked in charter schools.

Ackerman said that she wants charters and the District to share more information about best practices, and she has invited charter principals to District events. Charter operators, however, are chafing for more independence and less District regulation.

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