This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to turn over John Wister Elementary School in Germantown to Mastery Charter, but did not take votes to begin the process of pulling the plug on four other Renaissance charters that are operated by two major community organizations in the city, ASPIRA and Universal Companies.
It was prepared to turn over another school, Cooke Elementary in Logan, to the New York-based Great Oaks Foundation. But at the last minute, Great Oaks pulled out – citing the loss of anticipated startup funding that, it said, would hinder its ability to “adequately do the job that was expected of us.”
The letter from Great Oaks CEO Michael Duffey did not specify the source of the grant. But DawnLynne Kacer, head of the charter office, later confirmed that it was $1 million from the Philadelphia School Partnership.
Almost lost in the maneuvering was its vote on a two-year, $42 million contract to hire Kelly Services to provide substitute services to the District, replacing Source4Teachers, which failed to improve the District’s own rate of filling classrooms left empty due to teacher absences.
The nearly four-hour meeting was filled with twists, surprises and parliamentary moves that served to underscore the divisiveness of the Renaissance initiative, under which low-performing District schools are converted to neighborhood charters as a turnaround strategy.
The SRC expected to turn over three schools this year, but now is ceding just two – Wister, as well as Huey in West Philadelphia to Global Leadership Academy, which it voted on April 29. At the same time, the non-renewal reports from the charter office on Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, run by ASPIRA, and Vare and Audenried, run by Universal Companies, cited significant problems at those turnaround schools with academics, operations, and finances.
After a plea from Ken Trujillo, former city solicitor and a short-lived mayoral candidate, the SRC gave ASPIRA another week to make its case. Trujillo has been retained by ASPIRA as an “oversight counsel” to help the organization fix problems and straighten out multiple financial and operational irregularities, including violations of its own bylaws and the commingling of funds among its several schools and between the schools and the parent organization.
Commissioner Bill Green said the body agreed to postpone votes on ASPIRA partly because of their faith in Trujillo.
“He’s trusted by members of the SRC. He’s been trying to engage for a month … unfortunately, our bureaucracy delayed his opportunity,” he said.
It became clear from the commissioners’ questioning of Trujillo that ASPIRA is floating a major bond issue to raise funds and pay debts. The bond would allow the organization to “do more activities than those directly related to its schools. … We have to look carefully at the flow of funds,” said Commissioner Feather Houstoun.
She added, “The schools have academic performance that achieves a standard that would otherwise lead to renewal, but the charter school office has given us a set of issues that we need to resolve.”
Trujillo said there are serious matters that need to be addressed within the organization, but pushed back against the idea that ASPIRA should face non-renewal for fiscal or governance issues.
Referring to the issue of commingling funds among different schools or between schools and the parent organization, he said, “There’s nothing illegal about them. … There’s no indication whatsoever, that I’ve seen, that there was anything wrong that went on.”
The District has been raising questions about ASPIRA’s funding and operations since at least 2014. Last year, Olney’s teachers voted to unionize after a three-year campaign strongly resisted by ASPIRA. At the SRC meeting, two Olney teachers testified that they and the students should not be punished for the behavior of ASPIRA Inc.
“We want to be part of the process of looking together with ASPIRA administration and the SRC at how we can address the concerns about our school,” said teacher Sarah Apt.
The district’s charter office had also recommended non-renewals of Universal’s Audenried High and Vare elementary.
The SRC took votes on these schools, but they didn’t result in any formal action. Bill Green and Farah Jimenez abstained, and the other commissioners split. Sylvia Simms voted against the non-renewal, while Houstoun and chair Marjorie Neff voted in favor. SRC actions require at least three affirmative votes to pass.
After the meeting, Green explained that he abstained because he was not satisfied by the recommendation of the charter office, and again expressed his mistrust in the inconsistencies of the District’s School Progress Report metric.
“I’m just not comfortable that I have enough information to make a determination that we’d want to replace the schools with District operators,” said Green.
Green said another non-renewal vote could come up at any time. Without the SRC taking action, the charter’s agreement will remain in effect.
The SRC voted to renew Universal Bluford. Last year it voted to revoke the charter, but Thursday it decided to change course after getting Universal to agree to strict conditions.
“They essentially agreed to terminate their charter if they don’t meet the criteria provided in the charter they just agreed to,” said Green. “So they would have no right of appeal in two years.”
Green said this is much more preferable than allowing a costly appeals process to drag on for years.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report Tuesday citing operational irregularities on the part of both ASPIRA and Universal.
The vote to turn over Wister to Mastery came after months of controversy that bitterly split its Germantown community. Superintendent William Hite had initially recommended Wister to become a charter, but then reversed course after citing data showing some academic improvement at the school. But a parent base, newly convinced that Mastery would improve the school, found an ally in Simms, who in January introduced a surprise resolution defying Hite. It got the support of Green and Houstoun.
The Cooke saga turned out to be almost as tangled.
After months of contentious debate, the SRC approved the conversion of Cooke at its April meeting. The fine details of the contract, though, were still being negotiated.
In a letter to Hite on Thursday afternoon, Great Oaks CEO Duffey said it was with “heavy heart” that he decided to withdraw the charter application for Cooke, but cited fiscal concerns as the deciding factor.
“After closely examining our start-up budget in light of the uncertainty around the state of Pennsylvania’s finances, the lack of available support from the local philanthropic community and the unpredictable financial obligations that would come from fully serving the students at Cooke, we have reluctantly concluded that we would not have the resources needed to adequately do the job that was being asked of us,” he said.
Duffey said Scholar Academies’ decision to pull out of its Renaissance obligations at Kenderton elementary “weighed heavily” on the decision.
City Councilwoman Helen Gym first rang alarm bells about the viability of Great Oaks’ initial application in February. The District’s charter office had minimized those concerns and recommended the conversion upon vetting the full application.
“There was a material and significant change in their situation over the past couple of weeks that was determined after the approval by the SRC and the reccomendation by the charter schools office,” said Kacer. “They had had pledged start-up funding that they had been anticipating to have … that was withdrawn from them by a funder.”
She confirmed that funder was the Philadelphia School Partnership. PSP declined to comment on a potential grant not yet approved by its board.
Gym felt vindicated by Thursday’s turn of events.
“Ultimately, we cannot rely on charters to fix our school district. We’ve waited too long to reinvest in and re-envision our District schools. That’s where my hope in the future for our public schools lies,” she said in a statement.
The SRC also voted on four resolutions of charters seeking to expand their enrollment agreements.
It approved Christopher Columbus Charter’s bid to grow from 794 to 900 students, with conditions. The South Philadelphia school must wait until 2018-19 to reach that number.
The SRC rejected bids to boost enrollment from Franklin Towne and Maritime Academy. Against the charter office’s reccomendation, it granted Pan American Academy 33 additional seats. Green said he visited the school and found it had an excellent academic environment. Academic concerns were raised for each, among other issues.