Honorable James Kenney, Mayor
City of Philadelphia
Philadelphia PA 19107
Honorable Thomas Wolf, Governor
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
225 Main Capitol Building
Harrisburg, PA 17120
June 8, 2016
Dear Mayor Kenney and Governor Wolf:
On behalf of the members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, we request that you conduct an investigation into the actions of the School Reform Commission during its current renewal procedure of the charters for Aspira Stetson School and Aspira Olney School. We have attended all of the SRC meetings in April and May when these resolutions were considered, and we have serious concerns that the public has been denied the right to a fair and impartial process in these matters.
Aspira Inc. was granted a charter to manage John B. Stetson Middle in April 2010 and one to manage Olney High School in April 2011, after the district deemed each “low-performing” and placed them in its Renaissance program. The purpose of that program, according to the district’s website, is to “dramatically improve the learning environment in underperforming school district schools and to create highly effective schools that provide exceptional opportunities for student achievement and preparedness for success in college and the workforce.” The SRC’s Charter Schools Office (CSO) has cited several reasons—academic, financial, and managerial—which confirm that Aspira has failed to provide its students with a high-quality education and has failed to meet basic standards for proper school management. In addition, Aspira representatives admitted to financial irregularities enumerated in the CSO report.
Reasons cited by the CSO for non-renewal of Stetson include:
- Students scoring proficient or advanced on Math PSSA went from 63% to 36% from 2011-12 to 2013-14
- Students scoring proficient or advanced on Reading PSSA dropped from 36% to 28.3% in that same period
- In no year during Aspira Inc. management did Math or Reading scores exceed district averages
- Aspira Inc. failed to have all Special Education teachers properly certified
- The school does not have fully compliant and equitable admissions policy; admissions form is over three pages long and asks both students and parents for short answers to several questions
- Number of serious incidents reported is well over target goal in all years of Aspira management
- Students were expelled without votes by the Board
- Aspira Inc. violated the Public School Code by not releasing audited financial statements by December 31in more than one year
- Aspira Inc. failed to make PSERS deductions, forcing that money to come from the school district’s basic education subsidy
- The school’s treasurer, who served from 2012 until 2015, had no background in finance
Reasons cited by the CSO for non-renewal of Olney include:
- Graduation rates declined 25 percentage points from 79% in 2011-12 to 53% in 2013-14 and were below peer averages in 2012-13 and 2013-14
- In no year of Aspira management did Olney meet or exceed charter or district averages for any Keystone Exam
- Olney Aspira failed to meet all requirements for ELL learning programs in 2015-16
- The school failed to adhere to Student Code of Conduct; several suspensions of students for Level I and Level II violations
- Almost 50% of teaching staff—70 teachers—left after the 2014-15 school year
In addition, the percentage of students from the Olney catchment area has decreased by 25.3% since Aspira took over.
In spite of these and other reasons listed in the resolution, the SRC has voted three times in the past two months to postpone its vote on the non-renewal of the two schools. In fact, the SRC has been considering renewal of these two schools for over eighteen months, during which time Aspira failed to resolve its financial problems or to improve student performance.
There is an established 9-step procedure, posted on the district website, for the renewal or non-renewal of Renaissance charters. At the end of the five-year period, the CSO conducts a review of the schools’ academic progress, financial sustainability, and managerial/board proceedings. After meetings with charter school representatives and on-site visits, the CSO makes its recommendations to the SRC. This year, the CSO considered nine schools; it recommended non-renewal for both Aspira Stetson and Aspira Olney, along with two schools managed by Universal (whose renewal votes have also been put on hold, with no future vote scheduled by the SRC). Should the SRC accept the recommendation of its CSO and vote to proceed with non-renewal, the school has the right to appeal to the SRC. Should the SRC vote again not to renew, the school can take its appeal to the Charter School Board in Harrisburg. This will take at least two years, during which the schools would remain under Aspira management.
However, it seems apparent that the SRC is conducting a private appeals process for the benefit of Aspira Inc.
At the May 19 SRC meeting, attorney Kenneth Trujillo was moved from #23 on the Speakers List to #1. The SRC conducted a 30-minute discussion with him about how he could, in just a few weeks, help Aspira Inc. get its house in order and avoid non-renewal. (Those who came to speak in favor of the non-renewal were limited to the usual three minutes.) Mr. Trujillo testified that he had been retained by Aspira Inc. as “Oversight Counsel”. He confirmed that he had had conversations with staff in both the Office of General Counsel and the Charter School Office. He told the SRC that he had “relayed the outcome of the discussions to Aspira Inc. and to the board chair of Aspira schools.” He also stated that the Aspira’s Chairman of the Board, identified by him only as “Mr. Ramirez”, was present at School District headquarters earlier that day, although he did not specify whether Mr. Ramirez met only with staff or with any of the SRC commissioners themselves.
These negotiations amount to ex-parte communications with the charter school representatives, while excluding members of the public, in particular those who have spoken in favor of non-renewal of the schools.
Commissioner Farah Jimenez, who opened her remarks to Mr. Trujillo with “Thank you, Ken”, expressed her opinion that Aspira Stetson was making academic progress and that it would be wrong not to renew the charter “because of the actions of the adults”. However, she did not cast a vote due to possible conflict having to do with her new position as Director of the Philadelphia Education Fund. The SRC voted to table the vote on both Aspira schools, as it did at its April 28 meeting.
In violation of SRC policy, the Resolution Summary for the May 26 SRC meeting was not posted until 1PM that day. The resolutions for non-renewal of the Aspira schools were reposted, along with over twenty-five reasons taken from the CSO report. When the votes came up, Commissioner Feather Houston said that there were “too many documents” for the SRC to look at in the matter, although she did not specify which documents had been submitted after the CSO report was issued. The SRC voted a third time to postpone the votes on Stetson and Olney.
The decision on whether to renew the charter of any Renaissance school must be based on the performance of the charter provider in the years it has managed the school, not on promises that it will make a few changes in board structure or meeting times. If the SRC were to reject its own report and renew the charters of the two Aspira schools, as it seems clear it will, that would amount to the SRC condoning the corrupt practices of the Aspira corporation at the expense of the students and the community.
At the May 19 SRC meeting, CSO Director Dawn Lynn Kacer, in response to a question from SRC Chair Marjorie Neff, stated that “…we detailed a number of areas in organizational compliance, financial health, and sustainability at the schools…This includes things like failure to submit financial audits that are required by December 31st of each year of the following fiscal year on time for a majority of the years in the charter term, having a board of the schools that has appointees from a parent organization…or not even adhering to its own by-laws that the board had established.”
Kacer also cited financial violations: “With regard specifically to the financial performance, there were…transactions amongst the affiliated Aspira charter schools as well as Aspira as the charter organization that were not documented or that were made outside of the amount specified in the management agreement, and the Charter Schools Office was unable to ascertain the reason or the cause for those transactions as well as a number of obligations and guarantees made on the revenues at both Stetson and Olney charter schools for endeavors at other Aspira-affiliated schools including Pantoja and other charter schools and the buildings that those schools occupy.” Trujillo admitted these irregularities in his answer to Commissioner Feather Houston’s question on the matter of the use of funds for the two schools in question being used for other Aspira ventures: “Both the Chair of Aspira Inc. and of the schools have relayed to me their commitment to completely unwind any cross-collateralization and any obligation between the schools and Aspira Inc.”
If the SRC is going to renew the schools against the recommendations of its own CSO and the City Controller, then it should state its reasons in a public report. It should present that information at a regularly scheduled SRC Action Meeting, just as the CSO director was required to do. The public has a right to know on what evidence, data and information the SRC is basing its decisions.
We believe that you share our concerns about the integrity of the School District of Philadelphia and its education mission for all schools, be they district or charter. The actions of the SRC in the non-renewal process of the Aspira schools do not appear to be those of due diligence; they appear to be motivated by priorities other than serving the needs of all of Philadelphia’s pubic school students and communities.
We ask that you, as the chief executives of the state and the city, and those who appoint the members of the School Reform Commission, intercede in this matter and represent the interests of the public and the stakeholders in the district.
Lisa Haver, Co-founder
Karel Kilimnik, Co-founder
cc: Otis Hackney, Chief Education Officer, City of Philadelphia
Pedro Rivera, Secretary of Education, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania