This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Nearly two years after receiving initial recommendations, the School Reform Commission voted Thursday night not to renew two Renaissance charters – Olney High and Stetson Middle Schools – both run by Aspira Inc.
The SRC also voted to revoke the charter of Khepera Charter School, a North Philadelphia elementary school plagued by financial and academic woes.
The SRC voted 4-1 not to renew Olney and Stetson, with Commissioner Farah Jimenez casting the lone no votes. All five commissioners voted to revoke Khepera’s charter.
Olney and Stetson used to be District schools before they were taken over by Aspira as part of the Renaissance schools initiative. This model ceded chronically low-performing, often out-of-control District-run schools to outside organizations in the hope of quick, dramatic turnarounds.
In April 2016, the SRC’s Charter Schools Office (CSO) first recommended non-renewal for Olney and Stetson. Though the CSO identified some academic gains at the Renaissance schools, reviewers also uncovered a litany of financial and organizational flaws. The office found that Aspira had used its state and local per-pupil education subsidy to guarantee loans for other arms of the organization, including money earmarked for buildings that the schools did not use.
At Thursday’s SRC meeting, Rudolph Garcia, the officer who reviewed Olney and Stetson’s renewal cases, said Khepera had violated at least 11 laws.
After the vote, SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson said District officials should rethink the Renaissance model.
“It’s a conversation we ought to have,” she said.
Wilkerson continued: “There’s value that a lot of these institutions are providing. A lot of them, though, their expertise is not in education. So you look at these schools and you think maybe the charter school model is not the right model. It was the vehicle that was available to people, but it’s necessarily the right model going forward.”
One problem, Wilkerson said, is that the charter school law does not allow for any kind of “collaboration” between charter schools and the District, which she hinted might be a better solution to the problems with Olney and Stetson. Completely reverting to District leadership and a total exit of Aspira would mean starting over from scratch with new faculty and staff.
Wilkerson conceded that she does not know what the right model would be.
DawnLynne Kacer, head of the District’s Charter Schools Office, said that since the original nonrenewal recommendation, the financial health of Aspira and the two schools has become more precarious. The updated reports on Olney and Stetson show that Aspira is struggling to pay off loans and using its per-pupil payments from the state as collateral, while heavily increasing the amount assigned to each school’s budget for “administrative expenses.”
Administrative costs, described as being for maintenance, security, and information technology, at Olney more than doubled from Fiscal Year 2015 to Fiscal Year 2017 – from $2.7 million in FY 2015, to $4.5 million in FY 2016, to $6.1 million in FY 2017. That is on a budget of about $26 million for 1,800 students.
At Stetson, these costs nearly tripled, from $1.1 million to more than $3 million on a budget of around $11 million for 900 students. And that doesn’t include charter management fees, which were $931,582 in FY 2017 for Olney and $428,476 for Stetson.
Aspira is using the per-pupil revenue it gets from the state and the city for both schools to guarantee more than $15 million in loans to Aspira Community Enterprises Inc. This is mostly for its purchase and maintenance of the former Cardinal Dougherty High School building, which the organization uses to house other charter schools and some community services. Most of these loans are “in forbearance,” meaning payments have been temporarily suspended by the lender, PNC Bank. Aspira is seeking short-term bridge loans so they can resume paying off these loans.
In testimony before the vote, several teachers, parents, and students from the two schools described vastly improved climates and an array of supports for the students, including a large contingent of English language learners at Olney.
Kacer’s report emphasized the financial and operational shortcomings of Aspira’s management and found that their academic performance, while not outstanding, was not enough reason alone to shut the schools down.
Olney principal James Thompson said that the District uses an unfair measure to judge its academic success, comparing it to some special admission schools instead of other neighborhood schools in its area, including Frankford and Edison. He asked what would happen to the students if they were forced to go elsewhere.
“We are the best option for students we serve,” he said, urging SRC members to visit and see for themselves.
Commissioner Bill Green told Thompson that he agreed Olney was its students’ best option. Citing the high administrative overhead, he said, imagine “what you could do with 28 percent more money in your budget.” Green told Thompson that he and the staff should split with Aspira and lead “the first principal- and teacher-led turnaround” in the District.
The District has not named any new Renaissance schools the last two years and it said it has been conducting a comprehensive review of the Renaissance initiative for more than a year. District officials said Thursday night that the review is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, the District has tinkered with other turnaround strategies, such as contract schools. In that model, the District hires an outside provider to run the school, but still employs the school staff and retains tighter control over its operations.
Two other Renaissance charters run by Universal Companies in Southwest Philadelphia, Vare Middle and Audenried High Schools, were also first recommended for non-renewal in April 2016. No action was taken on them, but Wilkerson said she expected votes on their fates to come up in January or February 2018.
Sources had said that there was not yet consensus among the five SRC members about what should be done with those schools, which were also cited primarily for organizational and financial irregularities in the Charter Schools’ Office’s non-renewal recommendations.
All four schools – the two run by Universal and the two run by Aspira – have waited in limbo since the SRC first attempted to vote on their fates in April and May of 2016. The commission couldn’t muster the votes necessary to decide in either direction. For part of that time, the SRC did not have a full complement of five members.
The case of the Aspira schools was further clouded by the involvement of attorney and former mayoral candidate Ken Trujillo, who took on an advisory role with the organization in an effort to stave off the schools’ closing. He appeared before the SRC that spring and asked for time to straighten out the nonprofit’s troubles, which included a payout to settle sexual harassment claims against Aspira CEO Alfredo Calderon.
Before Thursday, non-renewal votes on the Aspira schools had appeared on the SRC’s agenda three times, the last of which came in October 2016. But the SRC never took definitive action, and the issue largely receded from public view.
And it could be years more before Olney and Stetson return to District control, if that ever happens. The SRC is required to take a second non-renewal vote after a series of public meetings. If the commissioners reach the same decision that they did Thursday night, Aspira can then appeal the vote to a state board and eventually sue in Commonwealth Court.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, parent Isaac Gardner angrily confronted the SRC over an incident in which his 8-year-old son at Solis-Cohen Elementary School was taken into a bathroom by a school police officer. Superintendent William Hite acknowledged that mistakes had been made and said that an investigation into possible misconduct on the part of the officer would be reopened.
Julien Terrell of the Philadelphia Student Union also angrily addressed the board, saying that eventually, school police officers should be eliminated.