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SRC to vote on Renaissance charter matches March 16

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

The School District is moving apace with its plans to match eight new Renaissance schools with outside managers, despite concerns about the clarity, transparency, and speed of the process.

There are two categories of schools that will be handed over to outside managers:

By Friday, the SACs at the Renaissance Match schools will let Superintendent Arlene Ackerman know which providers they prefer. She will review their choices, accept or change them, and make her recommendations to the School Reform Commission. The SRC is scheduled to vote on the matches on March 16.

The SRC will take a second vote in April to authorize the charters.

For the Promise Neighborhood schools, however, the SRC will not take a vote on the suitability of match itself, only on authorizing the charters, along with the others, in April.

"The match and the charter [for Audenried and Vare] will be approved at the same time," said District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs.

"There’s no need to have a [separate] resolution matching the schools because they’re already matched. It’s not the same process as [the Renaissance match schools.]"

While the procedure has raised questions regarding the timeline, the projected cost – especially given the loss of hundreds of millions in state and federal dollars – and whether the performance of the first group of Renaissance charter schools justifies moving ahead with this round, the District is for now declining to answer them. It has denied Notebook requests to interview Deputy for Process Improvement and Compliance Thomas Darden, and Associate Superintendent for Strategic Programs Diane Castelbuono until after the SRC votes.

An email from the communications office said, in essence, that Castelbuono and Darden were too busy focusing on “the timely completion of all the remaining steps in the process” to provide any time for an interview.

The District also has not been forthcoming about key dates. It would not release a schedule of when each SAC would take its vote and would not make public the names or affiliations of members of the SACs at each school. This information was provided last year.

“As the District gets closer to making final decisions, this process suddenly seems to be accelerating – and becoming really hard to follow,” said Len Rieser, executive director of the Education Law Center. “Results are important, but so is public confidence – and confidence begins, I would say, with the public being able to see what is going on. I’m not sure that’s happening.”

The timeline has been significantly condensed from last year. This year, while the District revealed the seven turnaround managers approved to compete for schools in January, it did not make public which ones were competing for which schools until a few days before the meetings were scheduled to start on March 1.

The SAC at Birney Elementary School, for instance, is only hearing from the providers today, but must tell Ackerman by Friday which one it prefers.

District officials downplayed any potential concerns and emphasized that the accelerated timeline was in response to feedback from the first year of the process.

"We are confident that the SACs will be able to make thoughtful recommendations to the superintendent that meet the particular needs of their schools within this timeframe," Childs said in a statement. “These community forum meetings are not the first time the SACs are interacting with the turnaround teams. These meetings are an opportunity for the larger stakeholder community to hear from and ask questions of the turnaround teams. The feedback from stakeholders at these meetings will help inform the SACs’ recommendations."

ACTION United Education Director D. William Browning, who said his organization has members on several councils, including Clymer Elementary, described the SAC process as confusing for parents.

"It’s extremely unclear," he said.

Clymer held a turnaround forum on March 7, at which parents and other attendees heard from potential providers and took a vote. But Browning said he did not think most of them understood that this vote was just a recommendation to the SAC, and would not necessarily determine which provider would be recommended to Ackerman.

"I’m not sure parents were aware that they weren’t actually choosing which model they’d go with, [but instead] making a recommendation to the SAC team," said Browning. "I’m concerned about the transparency of the SACs all over the District."

The District has also told the Notebook it is unable to fulfill requests to release the most recent monitoring reports from the SACs at the Renaissance Schools that opened last year. The reports, the first since after the first weeks of the schools’ opening, were due in early January.

Three of the first-year providers, ASPIRA, Mastery Charter, and Universal, are vying this year to operate more schools.

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