APPS letter to Mayor Kenney Calling for an Investigation into SRC Actions on Aspira

mayor kenney

The APPS letter to Mayor Kenney

July 27, 2016

Honorable James Kenney, Mayor
City of Philadelphia
City Hall, Office 215
Philadelphia PA   19107

Dear Mayor Kenney,

On behalf of the members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, we are writing to request that the City’s Chief Integrity Officer, Ellen Kaplan, conduct a full 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 of this year 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. Some of the reasons cited by the CSO for non-renewal include: significant decrease in Math and Reading PSSA scores; failure to have properly certified Special Education teachers; admissions policy which presents barriers to enrollment, particularly to non-English speaking applicants; students expelled without Board approval; failure to make PSERS deductions, forcing the school district to make payments out of its basic education subsidy. Similar reasons were cited for non-renewal of Olney, in addition to the facts that the graduation rate declined 23% in Aspira’s first year as manager and that almost 50% of the teaching staff left after the 2014-2015 school year.

In spite of these and other reasons listed in the resolution, the SRC has voted three times in April and May 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.

In her presentation, Charter School Office Director Dawn Lynn 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.”

The non-renewal resolutions were not on the agendas of the June or July SRC meetings. In fact, it appears that the SRC is conducting a private appeals process for the benefit of Aspira Inc.

At its May 19 meeting, the SRC conducted a 30-minute discussion with attorney Kenneth Trujillo, who was a candidate for mayor in last year’s primary election, about how he could, in just a few weeks, help Aspira Inc. get its house in order and avoid non-renewal. 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, and 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 Chair of Aspira’s Board was present at School District headquarters earlier that day.

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 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.

We believe the CIO has the best responsibility for a complicated situation which warrants a full investigation.

  • The CIO should investigate any violations of the state’s Sunshine Act, including discussions and communications which may have occurred in Executive Sessions; ex parte communications between Aspira representatives, in particular Mr. Trujillo, and SRC and district officials or staff;
  • The CIO should investigate any potential conflicts of interest by SRC Commissioners prior to or at the time of the vote; and
  • The CIO should investigate any undisclosed lobbying by various organizations around the Aspira renewals.

As Ms. Kacer told the SRC in a subsequent meeting, “We [the Charter School Office] don’t make decisions based on promises of future performance, we make decisions based on outcomes.”

If the SRC were to reject its own report and renew the charters of the two Aspira schools, we believe that would amount to the SRC condoning the corrupt practices of the Aspira corporation at the expense of the students and the community.

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.

The public must be assured that contracts, major decision-making and actions that involve millions in public dollars are held to the highest standard. An investigation by the Chief Integrity Officer will help maintain the public trust and credibility of our school district.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely on behalf of APPS,

Lisa Haver
Karel Kilimnik

Links attached to the letter to Mayor Kenney:

Medina, Regina: “School District to ASPIRA: Fix up you school”, Philadelphia Daily News, March 15, 2015.

Hangley, Jr., Bill: “Layoffs, Deficit Raise New Questions about ASPIRA Charters in Philly”, Philadelphia Public School Notebook, July 10, 2015.

Medina, Regina: “Questions Over Charter School Payments to Contractor”, Philadelphia Daily News, December 5, 2014.

Hangley, Jr.,Bill: “Philly School District v. ASPIRA: Second Warning for Charter”, Philadelphia Public School Notebook, March 6, 2015.

Denvir, Daniel: “Charter operator owed its schools millions, but no one’s checking the books”, Philadelphia City Paper, August 29, 2013.