APPS Calls on Mayor Kenney to Investigate SRC Actions in Aspira Case

Full SRC 5-19-16

The SRC has been considering the status of the charters of two ASPIRA schools, Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, for almost two years. There have been several stories published in the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook about ASPIRA’s failure to provide sufficient educational services to its students, along with serious issues about its questionable managerial and financial practices.  In April, the Charter School Office, which is under the domain of the SRC, presented detailed reports on both schools and recommended non-renewal for both. Rather than accept the findings of the CSO, the SRC has voted several times to postpone the vote.  APPS is requesting that the Mayor have his Chief Integrity officer investigate the actions of the SRC in the ASPIRA matter, in particular the private negotiations being conducted by two SRC members designed to make sure that ASPIRA retains control of the schools.
Rather than honestly answer the questions when interviewed by City and State Pennsylvania about the APPS letter, SRC Commissioner Bill Green launched a personal attack on APPS Co-founder Lisa Haver and questioned APPS independence.
APPS has previously questioned possible ethics violations due to conflicts of interest by SRC members relations with charter companies such as this letter to SRC Commissioner Farah Jimenez on September 2, 2015. In the letter, APPS stated: 
You identified yourself in that article as “Chair of Terry Tracy for Council-at-Large”. Mr. Tracy is a Republican party-backed candidate for city office. Subsection 696 (b)(6) of the Pennsylvania School Code of 1949, as amended, states: “No commission member may, while in the service of the School Reform Commission, seek or hold a position as any other public official within this Commonwealth or as an officer of a political party.”
Although no resolution has been posted regarding ASPIRA for Thursday’s (August 19th) SRC meeting, it is possible that the SRC will add a resolution for renewal at the last minute.

Education advocates call for investigation of Philly charter schools
City and State Pennsylvania – August 12, 2016

city and state logo

by Ryan Briggs

 The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an educational advocacy group, has called for the city’s Inspector General and Chief Integrity Officer, Board of Ethics and the Mayor’s office to investigate the relationship between School Reform Commission members and the troubled ASPIRA charter school organization.

The charter operator has been flagged by the School District of Philadelphia’s charter office for repeated academic and financial failings, but has remained in operation for more than a year due to the repeated postponement of a charter renewal vote.

The letter accuses School Reform Commission members of engaging in a “private appeals process” to benefit the charter at the public’s expense.

APPS member Lisa Haver accused SRC members Bill Green and Sylvia Simms in particular  of colluding with school operators to keep the school in operation through “ex parte” negotiations held outside of SRC meetings

“The School District charter office’s own reports recommended nonrenewal,” she said. “They’re working it out behind closed doors. It’s a violation of public trust.”

Haver said that Green and Simms had formed “a voting bloc” bent on keeping ASPIRA running in spite of its failing record at Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, which the operator took over four and five years ago, respectively.

But the five-member board has been repeatedly deadlocked on whether or not to terminate the school’s charter, in part because SRC member Farah Jimenez has recused herself from votes related to Olney. Her spouse, Kleinbard lawyer David Hyman, has a financial interest related to that school.

ASPIRA has faced years of public criticism related to its takeover of the former public schools, from sliding graduation rates to administrators feuding with faculty over unionization efforts. More recently, the school earned headlines for a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and teacher layoffs.

Green did not deny that he and Simms had met privately with school officials, but he laughed off the idea that his board or the school itself should or would be investigated.

“The school can meet with any two SRC officials. It just can’t be three,” he said, explaining that school codes only prohibited ex parte communications with a quorum, or majority, of members. “There simply aren’t three votes to terminate their charter.”

But Green also defended ASPIRA, in spite of its tarnished reputation, adding that there was a plan in place to quickly stabilize the troubled charter operator that superseded the district’s own recommendation to revoke the charter.

“I believe they [ASPIRA] serve a particular need in that community,” Green said. “They’re going to do a refinancing and change their governance. I imagine if they can’t resolve that within 30 days, I would consider voting not to renew.”

Unusually, that refinancing plan was drawn up by lawyer and former mayoral candidate Ken Trujillo, who appeared at recent SRC meetings stating that he had been retained by ASPIRA as “oversight counsel.” In testimony at a recent board meeting Trujillo described a “cross collateralization” plan that would insulate the schools from debt accrued by the charter operator nonprofit, ASPIRA, Inc.

SRC member Feather Houston expressed concerns that a debt collateralization plan would be enough to fix the ailing schools. But Green said that the attempt was a preferable outcome for parents and students compared to outright closure.

He said he suspected that the Alliance’s letters were politically motivated.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were on the [Philadelphia Federation of Teacher]’s payroll,” he said. “Haver is a shill for the PFT. I’m a shill for students and their parents.”

An APPS member said the group is not funded by the PFT.

Chief Integrity Officer Ellen Kaplan said her office did not have standing to investigate charter schools. But ironically, Green had previously crafted a memorandum of understanding between Inspector General Amy Kurland and the district specifically empowering the IG’s office to do so.

Kurland said she had not reviewed the letter as of press time.