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At Muñoz-Marín, a contentious lead-up to delayed Renaissance vote

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

When District officials delayed the vote on the Muñoz-Marín School’s future one month ago, they hoped the extra time would allow parents to become better informed about the choice they faced.

Instead, over the last four weeks, the campaign for the North Philadelphia school has grown increasingly contentious, culminating with a complaint filed this week by charter school officials against the School Advisory Council (SAC), alleging that the SAC had undercut their efforts to reach out to parents.

The vote is scheduled for Thursday.

Officials at ASPIRA Inc., a charter provider matched with Muñoz-Marín by District officials as part of this year’s Renaissance transformation process, say that SAC president Maria Cruz has effectively “sabotaged” their attempts to reach other SAC members and bring them on tours of its schools.

“She was against us,” said ASPIRA’s head, Alfredo Calderon. “I submitted a grievance.”

Cruz called Calderon’s allegations “a bunch of bullcrap,” saying that, even though she favors Muñoz-Marín personally, she discharged her duties as SAC president faithfully and never stood in ASPIRA’s way.

“I’m still standing and still fighting,” she said. “Ain’t nothing slow about Maria Cruz.”

District officials say they don’t have any response to the grievance right now. It does not appear that the complaint will have any impact on the two-part election, which will feature a popular vote of all Muñoz-Marín parents and a separate vote for eligible SAC members.

But it does put one more black mark on an election process that has featured mudslinging, scare tactics, and accusations by each side.

“They play very dirty,” said Muñoz-Marín’s principal, Ximena Carreño.

“The whole thing was pretty biased,” said Diana Dahl, director of business development for ASPIRA. “I feel like this is a no-win situation for both sides.”

The road to a grievance

Thursday’s vote will be the second of two Renaissance votes this year.

It was delayed by a month after ASPIRA officials and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez claimed that anonymous parents were complaining to them about the rushed process.

District officials agreed to the delay, saying they hoped it would give Muñoz-Marín’s newly formed SAC time to get better organized.

But over the last month, rather than cooling down, the situation “got more emotional,” said ASPIRA’s Dahl.

The process, like all Renaissance selections, was already emotional enough.

Muñoz-Marín was first named a candidate for Renaissance conversion in April, along with Steel Elementary in Nicetown. District officials hosted two informational meetings at the school, which were by all accounts lively and even contentious, featuring strong, vocal showings by the school’s teachers and their union.

District officials made the same case to Muñoz-Marín that they made to Steel, showing a steady decline in academic performance and arguing that, by their analysis, the school was among the District’s worst. School staff and ASPIRA made their respective pitches for transformation plans.

The school was set to vote when the District announced the delay. Quiñones-Sánchez, a former executive director of ASPIRA, went to the school to deliver the news in person.

Since then, District officials chose not to convene any additional public meetings.

Instead, they left ASPIRA to organize parent meetings of its own – an effort that was largely futile. At one meeting, held in the local recreation center, no parents showed up. At two others, one parent came.

Calderon tried to make the best of it. “One parent at a time,” he said during one meeting, smiling broadly as he stood in a room of empty chairs, near big trays of uneaten chicken and rice.

ASPIRA CEO Alfredo Calderon talks to a Muñoz-Marín parent at the local recreation center. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)

His message to the few who came was clear. He and his staff stressed ASPIRA’s commitment to children, spelling out its approach to various challenges and denying that it will “kick kids out” if they don’t get with the program.

He also made a vigorous case against the status quo at Muñoz-Marín.

“Our teachers are younger. Our scores are higher,” he said. “Our trend is going up … their trend is going down.”

He warned parents not to believe all they heard from Muñoz-Marín supporters, showing them an anonymous flyer that he claimed parents had been given which included misinformation (school supporters say they never saw the flyer and had nothing to do with it; Calderon said he wasn’t sure where it came from).

He also stressed that Muñoz-Marín was one of 53 District schools flagged for possible cheating in 2009-2011. The same message turned up in ASPIRA flyers given to parents at the school, which noted that “Cayuga [Elementary]’s leadership has been arrested for their part in this. Are Marin and its teachers next on the list?”

Calderon’s pitch helped sway one of the few parents who heard it.

“At first I came here thinking, no way do I want charter,” said Michele Hampton, who spent an hour with Calderon and his staff, getting their undivided attention. “But I’m going to keep an open mind. … Even though I’ve backed the people at the school, I have to do what’s best for mine.”

But ASPIRA’s aggressive approach left the principal and the school’s supporters angered and insulted.

“They’re giving away a flyer saying I’m going to be the next one arrested,” principal Carreño fumed. “If they were so good, you don’t have to do that propaganda.”

She responded with an email to parents: “People who feel desperate act in ways to hurt other people,” she wrote. District officials followed up with a letter to parents of their own, disavowing the cheating connection.

The pot boils over

The simmering conflict between the two sides finally boiled over this week, after ASPIRA tried and failed to arrange a final, face-to-face meeting with Cruz and the entire SAC.

Muñoz-Marín’s SAC was created this year as part of the Renaissance process. Cruz said that about a dozen parents are members. To be eligible for the SAC vote, those parents have to take tours of ASPIRA schools.

ASPIRA believes that Cruz has been deliberately sabotaging their attempts to get SAC members out to those tours, canceling at least two dates, Calderon said. She would cite personal or family reasons, he said (“there was always an excuse”), but he believed the real purpose was to thwart ASPIRA.

Cruz, while acknowledging that she’s a strong supporter of Muñoz-Marín’s current staff (her niece and nephew have had a bad experience at another ASPIRA school, she says), strongly denies any wrongdoing and notes that she and most SAC members took the required tours.

“They’re lying,” she said of ASPIRA’s allegations.

District officials confirmed that “at least” 11 SAC members – most or all of the parent members – took the tours and will be eligible to vote.

Nonetheless, Calderon decided last week that he wanted to meet with the full SAC. He says he requested a meeting at the school, through the District’s charter school office; Cruz said she replied that the SAC wasn’t interested. Carreño, the principal, said she was told by the District to host the meeting anyway.

Thus, on Monday, Calderon said, he and District officials arrived at Muñoz-Marín to find just one SAC member.

Calderon said he also found a PFT staffer (who said she was there to find out why the meeting had been called, in possible violation of District protocols, which prohibit direct contact between providers, school officials, and SAC members), along with three people from the political world: a representative from State Sen. Christine Tartaglione’s office, aspiring state representative Leslie Acosta (winner of the recent Democratic primary, virtually assuring her the seat), and Democratic ward leader Carlos Matos.

“They show up and sit there for the meeting,” said Calderon.

ASPIRA left in frustration. Carreño said she ended up in her office with a very unhappy Peng Chao, a staffer with the District’s charter school office.

“I said, ‘Mr. Chao, calm down – I had nothing to do with what happened there.’ But I don’t think he believed that,” Carreño recalled. “I said, ‘I told you, they don’t want to meet with Mr. Calderon. Why do you insist?’ They had their extra time … so why they continue with the situation? I don’t understand.”

ASPIRA officials, for their part, believe that the principal was more involved with thwarting the meeting than she let on. “Her partnership with Ms. Cruz is very clear,” said Dahl.

But there is no indication that ASPIRA’s complaints about the process will have any impact on the vote itself. “I don’t have any information on the grievance at this time,” said District spokesperson Raven Hill.

Election day: A repeat of Steel?

And for all the heat around the SAC vote, if history is any guide, the popular vote could render it relatively unimportant.

At Steel, whose Renaissance election was held a month ago, the SAC process was also hotly contested and ultimately bogged down in grievances about the District’s oversight. Those grievances were never resolved, in part because the popular vote was so decisive; parents voted 121-55 to reject their proposed charter provider, Mastery Charter Schools, and remain under District control.

At Muñoz-Marín, neither side is ready to declare victory or defeat, but both sides are well aware of the Steel results.

Calderon tried to put a good face on it: “We have a 50-50 chance,” he said. “We’re comfortable with the job we did.”

But he acknowledged that wooing parents away from the District is an uphill fight. “That’s all people know in the neighborhood – the District,” he said. “Even if it’s not working perfectly, they’d rather stay with it than try something different.”

And Dahl said the mood around ASPIRA is more one of resignation than optimism. “It is what it is,” she said. “It’s possible that how things went for Mastery is how they’ll go with us.”

Meanwhile, school supporters remain cautiously optimistic. Their strategy is to get the vote out. On a rainy day this week, retired teacher and organizer Ron Whitehorne stood in front of the school, sending out teams of teachers to knock on doors, identify Muñoz-Marín supprters, and encourage them to vote on Thursday.

“The numbers look pretty good,” said Whitehorne, who was armed with a list of Muñoz-Marín parents – a list ASPIRA does not have – but declined to say where he got it.

And no matter what happens Thursday, both sides agree on one thing: this contentious, combative process shouldn’t be repeated.

“This is not pretty,” said Vivian Rodriguez, a retired teacher who has been vocal in her support for Muñoz-Marín’s current staff.

Rodriguez said that at a minimum, the District should do more to ensure that both sides’ materials are fair and accurate. Better still, she said, “somebody independent” should oversee the whole process – not the District, which, she said, already indicated its preference by matching ASPIRA with Muñoz-Marín in the first place.

Dahl, too, said the District needed to take a stronger role refereeing such campaigns.

“I think both sides are in agreement that there should be some process by which the District approves materials,” she said. “That would help the parents to know the actual facts.”

And Calderon said that if the District really believes a school should be transformed, it should probably do what it has done in past Renaissance processes: declare the charter transformation a done deal and offer parents a choice among providers, rather than offer them the District-or-charter choice.

“If the scores are as low as the District says they are, the District should pair them [with a charter], regardless,” he said.

Carreño said she’s hopeful that she and her staff will be back next year, but uncertain about how the vote will go. She’s ready with her own improvement plans if the parents reject ASPIRA, but like her counterpart at Steel, she’ll need money to implement them – money that won’t be easy to find.

What she did get, she said, was an assurance from the District that if the parents vote against ASPIRA, the District won’t recommend that the charter take over the school.

“But,” she said, “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

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