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Questions about Renaissance charter costs from a former SRC member

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

Former School Reform Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky penned a letter to Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn this week, nudging him with questions about the cost of converting two traditional District schools to Renaissance charters. Answers to those questions, Dworetzky says, would make clearer, and more public, information useful in deciding whether to hand management of two North Philadelphia schools over to charter school operators.

The impetus for the letter was comments that Kihn made at a recent education conference, where he expressed frustration (“nobody gets it; the media doesn’t get it") over the misunderstanding of the costs associated with the process of turning management of two elementary schools, Steel and Muñoz-Marin, over to charter operators Mastery and ASPIRA.

I read in an article in the Notebook that you are frustrated that there is a misconception about the $4,000 per student “stranded costs” at the two proposed new Renaissance charters. The article quotes you as saying the District needs to do a “much better job” of getting the information out to the public.

I have listed below a few questions concerning those reported costs. The answers to these questions could be helpful to the on-going public discussion about the proposed changes at these two schools; perhaps the District could post responses on the District’s website in the section where information on the Renaissance Initiative has been provided historically.

In the letter, dated April 8, the former SRC member, whose term ended in January, asks seven sets of questions about Renaissance charter costs. They include: how they were calculated, why the estimated costs this year are so much larger than estimates in previous years, what the projected growth in enrollment is, whether attempts have been made at reducing costs, and what the annual, long-term costs of converting these schools are.

According to Raven Hill, a District spokesperson, school officials are aware of the letter and are committed to providing the public with information about the price of charter conversion and expansion.

"We have described in many forums, including the Notebook, the stranded costs associated with charter school expansion, including Renaissance charter school expansion," she said.

Dworetzky’s letter also asks Kihn to post an analysis, similar to last year’s, of the projected rising costs from year to year that would result from expanding enrollment at the schools.

"In the case of Steel and Muñoz Marin, we are currently calculating the projected costs based on the recently determined projected school and District costs for [fiscal year 2015], and will make these available when they are completed," said Hill.

Dworetzky’s final question asks whether it’s responsible behavior for a nearly broke school district to spend additional resources on select schools, considering that the source of the money ends up being the District’s other students.

On Thursday, the state’s auditor general, Eugene DePasquale, announced his plans to audit the District. Earlier in the week, City Controller Alan Butkovitz expressed his frustration over the District’s culture of secrecy around its finances, calling it " virtually impenetrable."

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