Board Accepts No Responsibility for Charter Debacle

Special Meeting of the Board of Education: August 26, 2022

by Diane Payne

The August 28, 2022 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, on the emergency at Daroff and Bluford charter schools previously managed by Universal Education Companies, reported:  “School board officials said the schools’ demise resulted from repeated instances of adults failing children.”  The Board made clear at this meeting that those adults don’t include them.  

Universal Companies Abandons Two Charter Schools
The Board called this special meeting, with the legally required minimal notice buried the day before in the Inquirer and a brief notice on their website, to approve agreements with the individual boards of Bluford and Daroff charter schools.  President Joyce Wilkerson and Board Members Mallory Fix Lopez, Lisa Salley, Reginald Streater and Sarah-Ashley Andrews attended in person; Leticia Egea-Hinton, Julia Danzy, Chau Wing Lam and Cecelia Thompson  remotely. Superintendent Tony Watlington, after answering the initial roll call, stated he is “still in a learning phase”, then remained silent for the duration of the meeting.  

Universal Companies took over management of both Daroff and Bluford over ten years ago as part of the failed and expensive Renaissance Schools “reform” initiative.  The School Reform Commission allowed Universal and other charter companies to conduct hostile takeovers of neighborhood schools whose standardized test scores targeted them as  “failing”. The District, instead of carrying out its responsibility to address the needs of the schools, ceded control of them to charter entrepreneurs who promised to effect “dramatic” academic improvement while maintaining sound financial and organizational structures.   As APPS showed in our 2020 Renaissance charter overview, not one charter operator in any of the twenty-one schools kept that promise. 

Kenny Gamble, a well known and politically connected businessperson, founded the Universal network; he and his wife Fatimah currently sit on the board of Universal Homes. Universal Education Companies still operates four Renaissance charters: Universal Alcorn (K-8), Universal Audenried (9-12), Universal Creighton (K-8), Universal Vare (5-8) and one independent charter Universal Institute (K-8). Their first school, Universal Institute Charter, opened in 1999. Just ten years later, the SRC handed control of Daroff and Bluford to Universal. Many in the community questioned how newly minted operators of one school could be qualified to turn around troubled schools in struggling communities. Under the SRC, the city’s schoolchildren became the guinea pigs of the reform movement.  

It is not just at Daroff and Bluford that Universal has failed. The most recent Charter Schools Office evaluations show that not one of the seven schools in the Universal cohort achieved the rating of “Meets Standards” in any of the three compliance categories–Academic, Financial, or Organizational. Three of these schools rated “Does Not Meet Standards” in one category, and two schools have this lowest rating in two categories. All of the Universal schools are in the lowest rating of “Does Not Meet Standards” in the Financial category despite the management company collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in management fees. Wasn’t a big part of Universal’s sales pitch that it was founded and operated by a successful businessman?  

From what the public could gather in news reports, conflict developed between Universal and the individual boards at Daroff and Bluford.  Eventually, Universal refused to continue to provide management services to the schools, leaving both in  limbo. Universal did not inform the families about what they were doing or what the future held for the schools.  After months of inaction, the Board then had no choice but to act. 

Board Accepts No Responsibility 
Charter School Office representative Biridiana Rodriguez and Chief of Staff Alicia Prince reported on how the District was aiding families left in the lurch, including website information and neighborhood information centers.   Any Daroff student may register and attend Bluford for this school year, which will also return to District control for the next school year.  The Charter Schools office reported at the August 18 action meeting that there are serious staff shortages at both schools. Board member questions centered on immediate needs. Will families of autistic students be able to visit a chosen school ahead of time? Yes. Will parents get help with school uniforms? Yes.  Is word getting out to families? Yes.  However, staff gave only partial answers to other questions. Are all the teachers at Bluford credentialed to teach their assigned students? We have their names but have not checked (no Board member asked when a credential inspection will take place for the Bluford staff).  When will a final building inspection be done? We are not doing a walk-through but the Bluford board has been providing us with updates (no Board member questioned why the Bluford Board is now trusted with the facilities safety of the schoolchildren–will there be District walk-throughs during the school year?). 

Board members made vague comments about “lessons learned”, but observers waited in vain to hear what the Board itself has learned.  By the District’s own standards, these schools have been failing for years, but both the SRC and Board postponed any decisive action. The CSO recommended non-renewal for Bluford as early as 2015 when the school failed to meet any of the standards,  but the SRC renewed the charter “with conditions”; the Board renewed again in 2020 despite failure to meet the conditions. 

Will the Board ever report out on any “lessons learned” by them?  

Board member Fix Lopez took the opportunity to remind parents that they should be attending the meetings of their children’s charter schools, saying that “when it gets to this level sometimes it is beyond repair… there really shouldn’t be these blow-up emergent surprises–just like they [parents] hold us accountable and testify…[they can] testify at those  boards as well.”  Without any further context or input from other Board members, this implication that the debacle is the fault of the parents for not attending meetings sounded to many like victim-blaming. 

The buck stops with this Board. They are the authorizing agent and compliance monitor.  They knew these schools were in trouble.  Why didn’t they meet with the schools’ parents or educators the first time the schools failed to meet standards and were recommended by their own charter office for non-renewal?  

Not one Board member publicly accepted any responsibility for the disruption and for the pain and suffering felt by the families now scrambling to find a new school after the school year has begun.  After the meeting, however, Wilkerson told a Chalkbeat reporter  “It’s hard to defend the Renaissance program as a success.”

The lack of an official Board commitment to take back the failing Renaissance charter schools makes acknowledgements like this all the more disheartening.   Board members echoed each other in thanking staff, politicians, and city officials who offered assistance but never once acknowledged a failure to act by the Board itself.  “Philadelphia school board member Cecelia Thompson said the damage has been done to hundreds of families in a vulnerable neighborhood.”  Yet, not one Board member called out Universal Companies, Kenny Gamble, or any of the highly paid administrators for their abandonment of these school communities. It was as though this was a natural disaster with everyone joining in to help the clean-up rather than their own man-made catastrophe.   It is past time for the Board to publicly and definitively acknowledge the Renaissance Charter program as a failure and announce they are going to take steps to safely and securely reclaim all Renaissance schools that are not rated “Meets Standards” in all three compliance categories.

Speakers Give Board A History Lesson
APPS member Lynda Rubin brought the receipts, citing the high management fees Universal collected every year before the company walked away.  Lisa Haver told of watching, over ten years ago, as Universal representatives make their sales pitch to be Renaissance charter operators to the SRC, who eventually allowed Universal to conduct hostile takeovers at six neighborhood schools. She called out the Board for allowing Universal to now carry out its second disruption at these two schools.   Diane Payne told the Board,  “The Renaissance Schools initiative has been a massive and expensive failure and the Board knows this. But Board inaction around Renaissance schools brings us here today.”

No Explanation for No Votes
When it was time to call the vote yet another surprise emerged.  The Action Item passed 7-2. Without explanation, Lisa Salley and Cecilia Thompson voted No.  Did they believe both schools should remain open?  Did they want the District to take back control of both schools immediately? Do they support maintaining failing educational opportunities for children?  As the Board does with all charter business, they withheld the full content of the item and the full text of the agreements with the two schools in question, effectively taking a vote in secret. That is a violation of the state’s Sunshine Act. Lisa Haver again stated APPS’ objection to the secret vote, calling it a “violation of the letter and spirit of the Sunshine Act and a betrayal of the public trust.”