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Judge denies Palmer charter’s request for more funds; school’s future uncertain

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

A Common Pleas Court judge refused Wednesday to order the Philadelphia School District to immediately pay Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School nearly $1.4 million in disputed funds, endangering the school’s ability to stay open.

In denying the charter’s emergency petition for the funds, Judge Nina Wright Padilla cited a May 27 state Supreme Court decision saying that the District was not compelled to pay the school for students above the 675-student enrollment cap outlined in its charter. Palmer, long contending that the cap violates the state charter law, has enrolled nearly 1,300 students.

The School District is moving to close the school due to financial irregularities and poor academics. This week, the District sent notices to students’ families informing them about how to enroll in other schools.

The school is appealing the move to revoke its charter, a process that could take more than a year.

Interviewed by reporters in the courtroom at the conclusion of the hearing, school founder Walter Palmer expressed "disappointment" in Padilla’s ruling and said he wasn’t sure what would happen next. In earlier court filings, he stated that the school could not afford to stay open without the payment.

In making her decision, Padilla harshly criticized the charter. Given the impact on children, she said, it would be "irresponsible" to continue the litigation. She urged District officials to move as quickly as possible to find new placements for the students.

"First and foremost, I am very concerned about the children at the [charter school]," Padilla said. "I am ordering that [Superintendent] William Hite and the School Reform Commission do everything they can to help children make as smooth a transition as they possibly can."

Addressing District lawyers in the courtroom, she said, "I want you to go back to your offices and work on this today." She specifically mentioned the needs of special education students.

Until the May Supreme Court action, Palmer had been prevailing in the battle over the money for the disputed students. Before the ruling, the Pennsylvania Department of Education had been sending payments directly to the charter over the District’s objections.

Padilla chided the school for increasing enrollment even as it "failed to meet compliance standards and academic goals."

Palmer said that the District would still be required to pay for 675 students and hinted that the school, which has campuses in Northern Liberties and Frankford, could stay open with that number. However, he had no plan for reducing enrollment.

"Maybe Superintendent Hite should come and choose," he said.

In addition to enrolling more students than called for in the school’s charter, Palmer created spots for students in grades that weren’t authorized. He opened a high school despite not having a charter for grades 9-12.

Palmer said he would "take a look at other legal options" and may seek "independent funding sources," including donations, to stay open and maintain the school’s enrollment.

Palmer, a longtime civil rights activist with deep political ties in the city, said that as long as parents want to send students to his school, it should be able to operate.

Asked about Judge Padilla’s comment that it would be irresponsible to prolong the legal battle rather than focus on transitioning students, Palmer said: "It was irresponsible for her to make the comment. She has never been to the school. … Parents know what they want.

"This is about school choice."

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