Closed-door meetings, postponed renewal votes and approvals of underperforming charters create questions about transparency.
The following commentary was published by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook on June 12, 2017
by Lisa Haver and Lynda Rubin
In September 2016, the School Reform Commission posted renewal resolutions that had been postponed for over a year for Mastery Gratz, Mastery Shoemaker, and Mastery Clymer; all three resolutions were withdrawn just before the meeting. They were re-posted in October and November and withdrawn before both meetings. Although test scores indicated that serious improvement was needed at two of the schools, Mastery objected to the conditions recommended by the Charter Schools Office.
In March 2017, the board of Russell Byers Charter School filed a request with the School Reform Commission for permission to relocate some students to an auxiliary location. The SRC approved the request at its May 1 action meeting.
During that time, the District was holding secret meetings with several charter operators and investors, including Laurada Byers, founder and board chair of Russell Byers Charter, and Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools. According to Avi Wolfman-Arent’s story in NewsWorks, high-ranking District officials including Superintendent William Hite, Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, and Charter Schools Office Executive Director DawnLynne Kacer met over a six-month period with representatives from several charter companies, along with charter supporter and investor Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.
The purpose of those meetings, according to District officials, was to formulate a replacement for the state’s existing charter law. Hite told NewsWorks, ironically: “We wanted whatever we came up with to be transparent and predictable.”
In fact, those closed-door meetings ran concurrent with both the charter renewal and new charter application processes. In February, the SRC voted on three new charter applications after reviewing reports presented by Kacer and her staff. That office also presents recommendations on whether existing charters should be renewed.
On May 1, with less than one week’s notice, the SRC voted to renew eight of the 23 charters due for renewal. Before the meeting, the SRC made a decision to postpone, apparently indefinitely, voting on the 11 schools whose managers refused to agree to what they characterized as unfair conditions by the District. Were some of those same charter operators present at the closed-door meetings?
Far from the District and charters having a relationship of “bickering,” as the article refers to, the SRC continues to prove that the interests of charter operators take precedence over those of District stakeholders. At its last meeting, the SRC approved yet another new charter, denied just three months ago, despite Kacer’s statement that the CSO found “no substantive differences” between the original and revised applications. The SRC has allowed clearly substandard charters such as Aspira and Universal to continue to operate by simply kicking the can down the road for more than a year (in Aspira’s case, more than two years) and offering no explanation to the public.
Serious questions have arisen about how these private meetings between District officials and charter executives have influenced the District’s decisions over the last six months. Kacer sat across the table from managers and board chairs of the very schools for which she decides whether to recommend renewal. At the May 1 SRC meeting, she referred several times to the “Mastery family of schools.”
District officials told NewsWorks that the purpose of the meetings was to form an alliance to stop Pennsylvania House Bill 97, a new charter bill that would have serious financial repercussions, from being passed. That bill, of course, would have to be palatable to the charter owners and investors including Mark Gleason, who in 2015 offered the SRC $35 million to approve 39 new charters. Offering government officials large sums of money to pass a resolution is the definition of a bribe, but the SRC actually considered it. This year alone, the SRC has approved five resolutions in as many months for PSP initiatives in public schools. Why were no independent education activists — no parents or educators —invited to the table?
When public officials meet with organizations that they have been entrusted to regulate, the people have a right to know exactly what they are doing and saying. Hite had many opportunities during those six months to inform the taxpayers who pay his salary what he and his staff were negotiating with charter operators.
No one other than those in the room knows what was discussed or negotiated. After months of secrecy, the District cannot expect anyone to trust its word on this. We don’t know all of the players or the totality of what was discussed. The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools has filed a right-to-know request asking for the names of all who attended, minutes of meetings, and all communications.
Parents, educators, and community members who advocate for public schools at SRC meetings know that their microphone will be turned off at exactly three minutes. But charter managers get all the time in the world.
Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS). Lynda Rubin is a retired school counselor and legislative liaison for APPS.