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Charges of racism flare in proposal to relocate Lab Charter to East Falls

The controversy has erupted on the eve of the Board of Education’s planned vote on whether to approve the move.

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

The already contentious effort by Laboratory Charter to move its middle school to East Falls has been roiled by a Facebook post charging that some of the opposition to the move is due to racism.

The post said that school officials were told at a meeting with several community leaders that “your school is a threat to our white community.”

The controversy has erupted on the eve of the Board of Education’s planned vote Thursday on whether to approve the relocation.

The Facebook post, which has since been taken down, was written by Chris Quintanilla, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as a locally based consultant who has held several government posts, appointed by both Democratic and Republican officeholders.

Quintanilla, who has a consulting contract with Lab Charter, was not at the meeting himself, but said he had statements from two participants.

“I wouldn’t say that quote without some sort of corroboration,” said Quintanilla, in a lengthy interview. He would not give further details, saying that he is looking into the possibility of filing a complaint.

“I believe the person or people in this meeting, if indeed they were making these sorts of statements, I believe law enforcement would want to know about it,” he said, contending that he considered the purported remark to be “ethnic intimidation.”

Carla Lewandowski, a community leader who has been actively opposing Lab Charter’s move to the neighborhood for more than a year, said that she attended a meeting late in 2019 with several other East Falls residents, Lab Charter CEO Andrea Coleman-Hill, some Lab Charter board members, and State Rep. Pam DeLissio.

She said Quintanilla’s assertion is a lie. No such statement was made at any meeting she attended, she said.

“Rather than engaging our community in meaningful dialogue and appropriate community meetings, they have hired someone to either write letters to the school board to support them and/or defile our character by spreading lies about things that were ‘said,’” she wrote in a letter sent to the Board of Education and Superintendent William Hite. “The only meeting between representatives of the school and us was last year and was held in front of State Representative Pam DeLissio, who would have never tolerated any such language.”

Quintanilla said he does work for Lab Charter through his consulting firm, Saperde, but was not hired to lobby on behalf of the relocation. Instead, he said, he helps the school, and other charters, with federal aid applications for educational technology.

When the school put in a proposal for funding last year, he needed information about its physical structure, and so had to learn about the plans to move. When he asked about it, a school official told him about uncertainty regarding whether the relocation would be approved and about the alleged comment.

“I was personally bothered by that, and when I get bothered, I independently decide to do something about it,” he said. “I had a conversation with a contact at the school, who said that was the quote said to that person and another person at the meeting.”

Told that a community member in attendance at one such meeting said it never happened, he said: “I have two people willing to say the opposite. I would not have said this was told to me if I did not have it in writing.” In passing along the information, he said, he “hoped to create a positive dialogue.”

Coleman-Hill, the charter’s CEO, did not respond to emails asking for comment.

Lewandowski’s letter to District leaders characterized the Facebook post, shared on a group page called East Falls Rants, as “underhanded tactics.” Last week, she testified at a Board of Education committee meeting that a big part of the opposition to the move is due to the school’s failure to adequately engage the community.

Screenshot of most of the Facebook post

The post was taken down shortly after it went up, but Quintanilla said he was not the one who removed it. He said he sent comments to the District’s Charter Schools Office on Monday night, before posting to Facebook.

Lab Charter, a K-8 school that is one of the oldest charters in Philadelphia, now has three campuses across the city – two in Overbrook and one in Northern Liberties. It has a checkered history; its founder Dorothy June Brown was charged with defrauding three charter schools, including Laboratory – its official name is the Laboratory Charter School of Communication and Languages – of $6.5 million between 2007 and 2011. The case went to court, but she was ultimately ruled unfit to stand trial.

Since then, Lab Charter has come under new management, but its multiple buildings have prevented it from consolidating its academic program, creating a unified school culture, and growing its enrollment, it said in its application to the District for the relocation.

Last year, it proposed relocating the entire school to East Falls, in a building on the sprawling site of the former Medical College of Pennsylvania campus on Henry Avenue.

The District’s Charter Schools Office supported the application, which is in the form of an amendment to the school’s charter. But last April, the Board postponed the vote on that proposal “indefinitely,” in part due to the community opposition and to the fact that Eastern University Charter, which the board voted to close, had yet to vacate the building.

This year, Lab Charter proposed relocating to two sites, with grades K-5 on Sedgley Avenue in North Philadelphia and grades 6-8 in East Falls. The Charter Schools Office is again recommending approval, saying that there is a “clear rationale” for the change. Besides making it possible for the school to consolidate its academic program, the relocation to the two new sites would also allow the school to expand its enrollment from its current 575 to the more than 1,000 students that its charter agreement allows, the recommendation said.

The revised proposal has not lessened community opposition. Part of it is due to general opposition to charter expansion and concern that a charter in the neighborhood would undermine efforts to improve the local District elementary school, Thomas Mifflin.

As in many other city neighborhoods, Mifflin’s demographics do not match that of its feeder area, which is more than half white. The school’s enrollment is 85% students of color, with many of its students drawn from the Abbottsford public housing complex across Henry Avenue. Many white parents have traditionally sent their children to private schools – William Penn Charter is in the neighborhood – and more recently to nearby charter schools, including Green Woods in Roxborough and Wissahickon Charter.

But now, many more residents, including Lewandowski, send their children to Mifflin. The school’s enrollment this year grew by 30 students, or 10 percent, particularly in the lower grades.

Last year, the board told Lab Charter to conduct more community engagement, but Lewandowski said the effort was perfunctory. Coleman-Hill sent an email to some local residents, and there was a meeting attended by about 100 people in early March run by the East Falls Community Council, which the CEO attended. Rep. DeLissio was also there.

“We’ve laid out our facts and why we didn’t want this school here from the beginning,” said Lewandowski. In addition to the minimal outreach by Lab Charter and the potential impact on Mifflin, she mentioned concerns about traffic and school buses clogging narrow residential streets.

“All they had to do was hold meetings and hand out flyers,” Lewandowski said. “The neighborhood’s biggest gripe, for us, is that if the charter comes here, it will max out its enrollment cap and there will be 500 extra seats going to the charter school. Especially with the money being lost due to the corona, we don’t have that money to lose. And Mifflin is thriving.”

(As more students enroll in charters, the District’s finances take a hit due to so-called “stranded costs.” But the state charter law says that school districts are not supposed to consider financial reasons when evaluating charters on the merits.)

A group called Friends of Mifflin has formed to organize events and fundraisers on the neighborhood school’s behalf. Lewandowski is the president.

Neither Lewandowski nor Polly Edelstein, fundraising chair of Friends of Mifflin, denied that there is some racially charged sentiment in East Falls. But Edelstein called those people “outliers.”

“Now, there’s generally a whole lot of momentum around Mifflin,” Edelstein said. “There’s positive energy, and a charter school in the neighborhood could derail all the work. We want the neighborhood public school to be a school that serves all the people in the neighborhood, from those who live in Abbottsford to those who live in million-dollar homes.”

Edelstein questioned Quintanilla’s account. “Why would anyone trying to better support a school that serves mostly black children be motivated against a charter school because it will bring black children to the neighborhood?” she asked.

Another factor in the longstanding opposition to putting another school on the site has been centered on anticipated traffic problems. Plans for a major townhouse development on another part of the former MCP property have exacerbated those concerns.

The District earlier this year relocated students from T.M Peirce Elementary School to the site while that building was undergoing asbestos abatement. Residents reported that buses idled on narrow side streets as they waited for students, sometimes blocking residents from moving their cars and spewing noxious fumes.

Quintanilla said that if he were advising Lab Charter on its relocation – which he reiterated he was not – he would suggest that they put a community person on its board or create a neighborhood advisory group as a way to counter the adversarial relationship.

“If they asked me to help with public relations, I would jump at the chance,” he said. “They have not.”