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SRC votes to revoke New Media charter, renew three others, sell William Penn

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

In one of the quieter School Reform Commission meetings in recent months, commissioners voted Thursday to revoke the charter of Mount Airy’s New Media Charter School, while renewing five-year charters for three other schools.

In its last regular meeting of the school year, it also took a series of other actions, including a vote to permanently close the former William Penn High School and sold it to Temple University for $15 million.

The action on New Media launches a series of hearings and appeal procedures that could take a year or more to conclude.

“I want the staff to understand that this is the beginning of the process, not the end,” said Commissioner Wendell Pritchett, who joined Chairman Bill Green and Commissioner Feather Houstoun in voting to close the school. Commissioner Sylvia Simms voted to keep it open, and Farah Jimenez recused herself due to a conflict.

The school will open its doors as usual in September and will almost certainly complete the full school year.

“I can’t imagine a scenario that would have us closing a school in the middle of the year,” said Green.

The SRC’s decision came despite pleas from the school’s new administration for leniency, as they attempt to recover from years of scandal. In 2012, New Media’s founder and its CEO were both sentenced to prison for stealing over $500,000 from the school’s budget in order to prop up their other businesses. That led to a board and staff shakeup. Board president Rhonda Bailey Green said that the school is on the right track.

“New Media has not yet obtained the standard of excellence we set for ourselves,,” Green testified. “But we have momentum. … We expect to be one of the excellent schools in Philadelphia.”

However, District officials countered with an analysis showing poor academic and fiscal performance; poor handling of special education students and English-language learners; and lack of strong board oversight. Among other things, the District’s’ analysis found that the school lost about $900 per student in 2013, ending the fiscal year with just four days’ worth of cash on hand.

The news was better for three other charter schools. The SRC voted to renew the charters for Paolo Freire in Center City, Nueva Esperanza in North Philadelphia, and Khepera in Mount Airy.

All three renewals are subject to some conditions.

At Nueva Esperanza, District officials noted that the school hasn’t reached state learning goals for several years and struggles with student discipline. The District also cited a number of board issues, including “conflicts of interest” among board members who are affiliated with Nueva Esperanza’s affiliated nonprofit or its landlord.

At Khepera, while academic progress is good, District officials say the school is not in compliance with a variety of board requirements, including “sunshine” laws about notifying the public of meetings.

At Friere, academic progress is also good, but the charter must ensure “adequate resources” for special education and English-language learners. District officials say a plan is now in place to address the issues.

Officials from Nueva Esperanza were on hand to let the SRC know that even though the school has signed its new charter and agreed to the renewal conditions, they still have issues with the District’s analysis and proposed oversight and hope to change some aspects.

“We don’t agree with all of the findings … but we feel compelled to sign,” said the Rev. Danny Cortés, the school’s chief of staff. Cortés asked the SRC to review its oversight process and suggested that some District requirements may not be legal under the state’s charter school law.

However, Chairman Green told Cortés that for now, Nueva Esperanza has no choice but to abide by the charter it has signed.

“It feels like, probably, to both sides, that it’s a confrontational relationship, but everybody has the same goal,” Green said. “I’d like to hear you say that you know it’s a contract, and you’ll abide by it.”

Cortés responded that the school will honor its obligations – unless they turn out to be illegal, in which case, he said, “it’s not ours to decide.”

The renewals come just as responsibility for all charter oversight is about to shift. Under a new policy, as of July 1, staff in the charter school office will not report to Superintendent William Hite, but directly to Green and the SRC.

Green said he doesn’t expect his job to change much. He said a search is now underway for an executive director for the charter school office.

“There were many reasons to do this, from a governance perspective,” Green said. “One of the most significant is to avoid even the appearance of a conflict between the District and the charter schools. Now, the authorizing authority [i.e. the SRC] is doing the oversight.”

Green said that among the benefits is that the SRC can develop its own budget for the charter school office.

“There are personnel and other things that are now on the SRC’s budget,” said Green. “The charter office, even today, is underresourced. Perhaps now that it’s under the SRC, it will get additional resources that, when the District had to make choices, the charter office didn’t get.”

A more muscular charter school office is essential, particularly because its role is set to expand, Green said.

“Effectively, we’re managing $700 million of our budget with five people, and that’s not sufficient,” he said. Under the new policy, the office’s role will expand; its staff will now be reviewing all charters every year, instead of once every five years during the renewal process. “It requires additional resources,” Green said. “Whether or not we’d be willing to make those investments … depends on how we do in Harrisburg.”

In other news from Thursday’s meeting

• Despite last-ditch pleas from State Rep. Curtis Thomas and a handful of community advocates, commissioners voted to “permanently” close North Philadelphia’s William Penn High School. Commissioner Simms cast the lone vote against closure and against the sale.

The vote paves the way for the site’s planned sale to Temple University, which plans to demolish some buildings to make way for athletic fields and use others for a “job training academy” to be developed with the Laborers’ District Council.

“With an LDC job-training academy in the heart of North Philadelphia, many more residents will have convenient access to a range of pathways to success,” said Temple president Neil D. Theobald in a statement released after the vote. “This site will also give our students the high-quality recreational and athletic experience they deserve.”

• District officials will begin to examine privacy questions surrounding the student data used in the Great Philly Schools website, developed by the Philadelphia School Partnership. The privacy issues were first raised at a recent SRC hearing by Carol Heinsdorf. The Great Philly Schools website’s user agreements grant PSP extensive rights to use visitors’ information for its own purposes. “Thanks to the speaker who brought that to our attention,” Hite said.

• With some funding secured from City Council, advocates called on District officials to step up the pressure on Harrisburg and pledged their support.

“We are counting on you to lead a public coalition … to put pressure on the governor,” said Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Public Schools. “I believe Chairman Green when he says he has put aside or will put aside political considerations. … Please let us know how many buses you’ve reserved and when we should be there to board them.” Deborah Grill called on the District to “opt out of standardized testing this year and funnel the money back into the classrooms.”

However, longtime activists “Mama” Gail Clouden and her daughter, Leah, told the SRC that they wanted to see the District put more pressure on its vendors to cut costs. “The Philadelphia School District has become a cash cow,” said the elder Clouden. “We pay too much to get too little. … We do not approve of asking and asking and asking for more money, while we sit here and watch you waste money.”

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