Board Must Deny Substandard Universal Charter Renewals

by Lynda Rubin

The Board of Education conducted almost three weeks of legal hearings on the recommended non-renewals of Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff, both Renaissance charters in West Philadelphia neighborhoods. APPS members attended every day of the remote hearings. The testimony presented leaves no question that these schools should be returned to District control. 

The Charter Schools Office (CSO) recommended non-renewal for Bluford in 2015, but the SRC voted to renew. CSO recommendations for non-renewal are rare. The SRC and now the Board routinely, and without public hearings, renew charters that fail to meet academic, organizational, and financial standards. Charter operators sign 5-year renewal agreements, negotiated in private meetings with CSO representatives, that often include conditions under which they will operate, with goals and rather generous targets. The CSO evaluates all  charter schools yearly, issuing  detailed reports based on extensive data, review of financial and organizational reports, and in-person site visits.  

Taxpayers must cover all costs associated with the hearings: legal fees for both District and Universal attorneys, preparation of  thousands of documents, and paying the hearing examiner and stenographer. The longer the hearings take, the more money is depleted from District coffers, not from the charter organizations themselves. This becomes an issue when the charter attorneys recall witnesses, ask repetitive and redundant questions, and raise trivial objections. The charter schools and their management companies have no incentive not to waste time and money with specious arguments, fishing expeditions and citation of inconsequential and irrelevant data to confuse the issues and, it seems, punish the District for issuing a non-renewal recommendation. The purpose of these hearings was to review the charges included in the non-renewal recommendations issued by the CSO for both Bluford and Daroff.

Charter Schools are bound by local, state, and federal  regulations on education, health, safety and equity.  The District, as authorizer, must ensure that charters comply with  all regulations and progress reports, as well as ethical and financial disclosures and safeguards required by all public schools.

Renaissance Charters were created by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman ten years ago.  Public schools with low standardized test scores were labeled  “failing” and targeted for takeover by private, non-education organizations. 

The District promised a higher level of accountability for Renaissance schools than other charters. As neighborhood schools, they have very specific obligations to the community. Despite their consistent failure to meet those obligations, substandard Renaissance charters have routinely been granted 5-year renewals by both the SRC and the Board. Renaissance companies including Universal, Mastery and Aspira sold themselves as providers of a better educational experience, promising to exceed District outcomes. APPS’ review of District data and other official reports shows that none of the Renaissance schools came close to fulfilling that promise. 

One example of the immediate lowering of standards was the creation of a special “Approaches Standard” rating for charter schools:  Is a standard not a mark that one meets or does not meet?  Why would charter operators who sold themselves as providing a higher quality of school need to be rated with a special safety category?  Like the bell-shaped curve, the Approaches Standard area comprises about 2/3 of the total range. Thus charters only reaching Approaches Standard could be below 50% progress, which may technically be approaching, but from a significant distance.

Universal Bluford Charter School (K-6)  became a Renaissance School in 2010 and, despite a CSO recommendation for non-renewal, was renewed by the SRC in 2016 for another five years. The District held legal non-renewal hearings, but before the hearing examiner could submit his report to the SRC, the District negotiated a 5-year renewal agreement with Universal. The 2020 Renewal Evaluation/ACE again recommends non-renewal, citing failure to meet standards in Organization and Financial Domains.  Academic rated “approaches” standard.

The 2019-20 Annual Charter Evaluation Report/ACE again recommends Non-Renewal. 

  • Academic Success:  Approaches Standard
  • Organizational Compliance and Viability: Does Not Meet Standard
  • Financial Health and Sustainability:   Does Not Meet Standard

 The 2014-15 Renewal Recommendation Report recommended Non-Renewal.

  • Academic Success:  Does Not Meet Standard
  • Organizational Compliance and Viability: Does Not Meet Standard
  • Financial Health and Sustainability: Approaches Standard

The May 11, 2015 SRC Minutes, in Resolution SRC-12,  Proposal of Non-Renewal for Universal Bluford, stated in part:  “FURTHER RESOLVED, that the SRC will take formal action on the nonrenewal or renewal of the Charter following the hearing at a public meeting, after the public has had thirty (30) days to provide comments to the SRC. Recommendation: Non-renewal by a vote of 4-1.” 

However, Minutes from the following year’s May 19, 2016 SRC meeting  (pp 7-11) regarding SRC-12 state:

  “WHEREAS, the SRC held eight days of public hearings during August through October, 2015 on the nonrenewal of the Charter before a hearing officer, and a period of public comment occurred; and WHEREAS, before the hearing officer issued a final report and recommendation on the  recommended nonrenewal of the Charter, the School District and the Charter School negotiated  proposed conditions for renewal of the Charter;  and now be it RESOLVED, that the Charter is RENEWED,” (p. 6-7)“FURTHER RESOLVED, that Resolution SRC-12, approved by the SRC on May 11, 2015, is rescinded and the non-renewal proceeding of the Charter School is cancelled.” (p 13).  One condition of the 2016 renewal states:   “11. The Board of Trustees acknowledges and agrees that through the Renaissance Schools Initiative, the Bluford School had been identified as a School District school which needed fundamental change to facilitate a transformation of the learning environment. As the board of a Renaissance charter school, the Board of Trustees is committed to achieving high levels of academic achievement, sound operations, fiscal responsibility, and strong parent and community engagement. Therefore, the Board of Trustees acknowledges and agrees that if during the Term of the Charter, the SRC approves by resolution the revocation or nonrenewal of the Charter after first approving a notice of nonrenewal or revocation, holding a public hearing on the nonrenewal or revocation and announcing a 30-day period comment pursuant to Section 1729-A(c) of the Charter School Law, the Board of Trustees shall (i) waive its rights to any appeal SRC resolution approving the nonrenewal or revocation of the Charter to the Charter School Appeal Board, to any administrative agency or to any court, and waive its rights to the commencement of any court actions related to the nonrenewal or revocation of the Charter School’s charter or to the charter renewal or revocation process; (ii) surrender and forfeit its Charter by the end of the school year during which the SRC approved the nonrenewal or revocation of the Charter; and (iii) close and commence the dissolution process of the Charter School by the appointment of a dissolution manager no later than June 30th of the school year during which the SRC approved the nonrenewal or revocation of the Charter.” [bold added]

Universal Daroff Charter School (K-8)  became a Renaissance charter in 2010 and was renewed with conditions by the SRC in 2015 for a 5-year term. The 2019-20 Renewal Evaluation/ACE  recommends Non-Renewal.

  • Academic:  Does Not Meet 
  • Organizational:  Does Not Meet 
  • Financial Health and Sustainability: Approaches Standard

A Notice of Deficiency (April 29, 2019) was issued to Universal Daroff for Organizational Compliance findings on the 2018 ACE:  “ESL Access:12% of EL students (2 of 16) were not provided the ACCESS for ELLs Evaluation during the 2017-18 school year. State law requires that LEAs provide an annual assessment of English language proficiency for all ELLs enrolled in grades Kindergarten through twelve.”  The 2014-15 Renewal Recommendation Report recommended a 5-year Renewal with Conditions.

Academic:     Meets Standard

Organizational Compliance:   Approaches Standard 

  • Not completely fulfilling legal obligations to special ed students – (failure to meet any criteria)    
  • Not fully compliant and lack of equitable admissions policies – (failure to meet any criteria)
  • Not submission of all required documents and information or comply with personnel terms (failure to meet any criteria)
  • Board of Trustees does not operative in accordance with applicable laws and policies (failure to meet two or more criteria)

Financial Stewardship:  Approaching Standard 

  • Not fully adhering to generally accepted standards of fiscal management

The 2014-15 SPR report places Daroff in the lowest category–Intervene– for Achievement. Enrollment of students within the catchment decreased to only 64% in 5 years. 

The CSO evaluation reports cited instances of fiscal mismanagement, irregularities and lack of compliance, as well as Board of Trustees operating in violation of applicable laws and policies. These must be considered in light of federal criminal investigations leading to indictments of Universal officials, state investigations, and former City Controller Butkovitz’s report on fiscal mismanagement at Universal Charter Schools.  All reveal questionable and possibly illegal acts in the practices of Universal Companies and public schools regarding financial enrichment.  From the City Controller’s report: “Among other things, the report found questionable financial transactions among related entities, including loan guarantees; school-lease arrangements with parent organizations; and charter board members serving on boards with ties to the schools.” 

During the 2020 non-renewal hearings, Universal attorneys grilled several CSO staff members at different times about alleged lack of support for the charter school in question and the Universal organization overall.  The attorneys insinuated that factual findings were born of bias against certain charters among CSO leadership and staff.  Universal attorneys’ questions to CSO carried the implication that they lacked professional judgment, that they did not rely on their advanced degrees in education and statistics but on prejudice against Universal.  Hearing Officer Rudy Garcia repeatedly told both Universal attorneys that they were repeating the same questions of the same witnesses, wasting time and extending the hearing unnecessarily. After several warnings, Garcia warned them that if those tactics continued, he would put a “hard stop” on their time–that the clock would determine the end, not any unanswered questions.  One Universal attorney asked Sarah Gearhart, CSO Director of Policy, Research, Data and Analytics, whether it was reasonable to expect any charter school to meet District requirements. Gearhart responded, “In a 5-year charter term, the leadership who signed up for this endeavor should be able to do it. However, the CSO is not quick to recommend Non-Renewal and doesn’t do it lightly. The CSO will first go for conditions and whether this school [already]  had conditions.”  Universal lawyers, in so many words,  blamed the CSO staff for the fact that after the non-renewal recommendation was issued, Universal teachers left to find jobs in other schools. Neither attorney gave data nor indicated that the teachers had been interviewed or polled; thus, it is possible that they left to find employment at better schools.

The attorneys touted individual accomplishments by the schools as a reason to ignore the actual facts and data that show a lack of student progress, incomplete documentation or by-passing procedures and accountability required by state and federal laws and legal settlements. Not raised by Universal attorneys was the fact that not only had they willingly signed their legal renewal agreements, they had also negotiated changes to the District’s oversight for operations favorable to the charter schools.

During the hearing, Universal and District attorneys questioned Universal and individual schools’ administrators about responsibilities and processes of the schools’ Board of Trustees. School District attorney Ellen Schurdak questioned Mu’min Islam, Counsel for Universal Companies, regarding rules and practices for documenting public actions of Universal’s Board of Trustees and the boards at individual schools. Islam stated,  “A lot of things discussed may not get into the minutes“,  including which Board members were there and how they voted. Islam admitted that  “…there is an obligation to discuss” but said he was unsure about public disclosure rules.Universal Chief Operating Officer (former Executive VP at Universal Community Homes and stepdaughter of Universal founder Kenney Gamble)  Tamelia Hinson-Threadgill was questioned about the CSO’s report of missing documents including staff official clearances and other personnel records. Hinson-Threadgill offered various reasons for the missing documents: since moving to bigger offices in 2019, not all boxes had been unpacked, delaying uploading information; or that when boxed up, the child abuse documents were in other files, not the specific employee’s file. Hinson-Threadgill answered “Yes’ to Schurdak’s question of whether the records were ever found. Schurdak then noted that the District never received them.  Hinson-Threadgill then contended that she had attempted to give CSO Director Roger Kligerman new documents but he wouldn’t accept them because of the date discrepancy.

Former School District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon was hired as Superintendent/CEO of Universal Schools eight years ago. She testified that she had been in Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s cabinet when the Renaissance Initiative was formulated in 2009; she left for Universal in 2012. Actually, Nixon was a central architect and proponent of the Renaissance program. She testified about the performance of Bluford and Daroff Schools, their student population, and their progress over the years. After extensive questioning, Nixon finally admitted, in regard to low catchment-area  enrollment,  that any student who ever attended a Universal school was considered part of the school’s catchment areas. That is, a student who enrolled in a Universal school in 2nd grade and moved in 3rd grade could attend the school no matter how far  s/he moved or how many times. She attempted to explain by stating that she now lives in Elkins Park but is “from” Germantown. Thus, if a student is “from” the catchment area, Universal will keep him until graduation. This is a significant barrier to enrollment for the children who actually live in the catchment area. In public schools, students are able to finish out the year if they move but must transfer to their neighborhood school  the following year. 
The history of Universal Bluford and Daroff yields a maze of votes yielding a 2015 non-renewal, halted by a 2016 renewal with a surrender clause, and culminating in another recommendation for non-renewal in 2020. The Board must intervene now. These schools have demonstrated over ten years that they are not providing their students with an improved education experience, and by no standard does either rate another renewal.